Big Love: Appropriating feminism in advocating polygamy

Originally posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Members of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Source: Utusan Melayu

Stories about polygamy tend to surge and ebb in the media, but they never fail to intrigue people. Recently in South Africa, a Zulu man married four women–all at once–making the most popular story on the BBC news website (you can watch the clip here). In the video, a male wedding guest gives a thumbs-up to the marriage(s), claiming that the “world” suffers from monogamous marriage breakdowns as a result of adultery. Later, the narrator serves up a classic: with all those wives, what man will have time to cheat? So, yes, it seems to be all about sex and keeping the man carnally satiated as to not go astray. But what do the wives have to say?

From one Muslim wife’s perspective, there is Hatijah Aam, founder of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Running what sounds like a matchmaking service, Hatijah herself introduced her husband to a future co-wife, a mother of seven. The club has been successful at marrying men and women from neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, and even as far as Australia. The virtues of polygamy, according to her, echo the stuff in religious texts I’ve become so accustomed to: it helps single mothers, “old maids”, and former sex workers (a new addition!) out of what is ostensibly abject misery.

Looking at the social context in Malaysia, it’s understandable how polygynous relationships can thrive: women are chronically at an economic disadvantage, a female-initiated divorce is a difficult, laborious process, and if it is successful, women shoulder the stigma and burden of being fair game to any Malay-Muslim man. Pinning on former sex workers, single mothers, and divorcees the label “unwanted goods” says a lot about the precarious status women have in society; women are not only defined by their marital (and sexual) status, but also seem to lack agency to better themselves.

For a while I’ve been interested in what women in polygamous marriages have to say about their relationship with their husband, co-wives, and with their faith, particularly when feminist buzz words like “choice”, “rights”, and “consent” are used. Take for instance this argument: in a monogamous marriage, a woman has the right to choose her spouse, and so in principle a woman should also have the same kind of rights to allow her husband to marry another. It will be interesting when the role of rights and agency are raised in response to legislation against polygamy in numerous countries across the globe. There’s also an argument that “feminist” polygyny allows women “to have it all”: work hard and have a great arrangement with co-wives who will look after their kids (providing of course that the co-wives aren’t so career-minded).

Like polyamory and open marriages, polygamy is not common for obvious reasons, jealousy being the main one. And while for the few women whose rights are respected and protected (in some countries), how do their choices impact on all other women in general? Will a concept of polygamy that is truly women-centric subvert a system in which some women see sharing a husband the only way out of economic or social hardship? Will every wife have a happy sex life? Tightening conditions on such marriages may appear as posing restrictions on a woman who wants to express her rights, but at the same restricts men from marrying women for exploitative reasons often disguised as noble ones. In Indonesia, laws are made increasingly lax to accommodate men who wish to tie the knot multiple times, even if they lack the financial means (or the guts) to tell their first wives.

Polygyny, alongside housewifery and pornography, is just one of the few issues women have been grappling with distinguishing between whether it’s feminist or not. And so a belief in ending oppression in all its many guises should be the compass of every feminist if one finds themselves lost. To end, I leave you with Hatijah Aam saying that polygamy should be something beautiful, rather than something disgusting. I say, fair enough–keeping in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

13 thoughts on “Big Love: Appropriating feminism in advocating polygamy

  1. I agree with you, Alicia. Polygamy is such a complex topic when the issue of so-called ‘women’s consent’ is thrown into it. I know a few women whose husbands are polygamous. These women are educated, working and travel constantly all around the globe – very far from the victim stereotype of Muslim women.

    Right now I think the most important part is to ensure Malaysian women and children in polygamous marriages are safely protected (financially, legally, etc) whilst at the same time empowering Muslim women here from a young age to be open to feminst interpretations of the Qur’an so that maybe one day Muslim women in Malaysia will be finally support a legislation to ban polygamy altogether.

    (I hope I made sense)

    • I know that while I was in Malaysia around June/July, Sisters In Islam was doing some research on women in polygamous marriages and it showed exactly what you’ve said: women who work, are highly-educated, and seemingly ’empowered’ see nothing wrong in sharing a husband with numerous women – like a harem, only more “empowering”. Don’t be surprised to find in your Islamic women’s magazine an article about polygamous female role models.

      I’m not one for banning things that do not directly harm people, so I don’t think banning polygamy is really the answer, particularly when the law-making process in Malaysia isn’t always about benefiting everybody in the first place.

      But I am all for female-friendly readings of the Quran:

      http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1252188238920&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout

      At the same time, education isn’t really enough. We can see how Malaysian universities are demographically female – okay, almost, yet women do not get the best paying jobs and have little say in the public and in private sphere. Women can get all the degrees, but it’s a male-dominated society that decides on what happens to her.

  2. I can’t give a measured response to this.

    Mainly because I know two men who married second wives behind their first wives’ backs.

    Say statistical aberration, say not the rule, say what you like… but if polygyny opens itself to abuses like this (and in Malaysia, it does, don’t fool yourself people), I don’t damn well think it’s feminist in any way.

    • I think we’ve all seen too many examples of how polygamy is definitely bad for women, and always it seems that men make it bad.

      Personally, I don’t think polygamy can sustain its feminist status if the legal system in Malaysia isn’t woman-friendly. At the moment in Malaysia, Muslim women climb mountains and jump through hoops of fire to finalise a divorce. And so to make polygamy in the Islamic context *more feminist* than it already is is to make getting into such marriages as easy as getting out of them.

      I think most people, whether religious or not, think that polygamy is allowed in Islam. Just because something is OK in the Quran and should be considered Islamic is another matter though. It’s like saying eating chicken is Islamic because it’s mentioned in the Quran.

      • It just gets on my nerves. For one thing, my impression was that getting into polygynous marriages was not for the heck of it: not only would your obligations and responsibilities be multiplied, you had to make sure that you treated each and every spouse equally, because they were equal.

        Which raises the question of intimacy — if you are close to one wife, you are close to all. You had to love them equally. How do you measure that? How can you live with the fact that these women not only have access to your resources, but you are obligated by shari’a to support them all?

        Every time I hear someone getting a second wife, or considering it, I think “WHAT AR, YOU MAD IS IT? SATU BINI DAH SERABUT KAU NAK DUA? GILER KE?”

        And to make it worse… we have the worst marriage system, as Muslims in Malaysia, I actually know of. Nowhere else do I know are the husbands given so much license to be such absolute dicks and the wives are given bupkis in recompense. Just reading or hearing the stories makes me want to kill someone.

        And to be frank, I did consider getting a second wife — the culture of being a newlywed is as such that the usual “got three slots free more what” jokes are almost unavoidable.

        My wife kind of quashed those considerations when she told me she’d make it her damn mission to make the younger wife her best friend, and then to wait until I majorly screw up.

        Then she and second wife would slowly unspool my guts for garters.

        As you can imagine, I’m happily monogamous.

        Very happy.

        Couldn’t be happier. Thank you for asking.

  3. This. This chaps my ass:

    There’s also an argument that “feminist” polygyny allows women “to have it all”: work hard and have a great arrangement with co-wives who will look after their kids (providing of course that the co-wives aren’t so career-minded).

    People do not need marriage for this. This is called a co-operative household. It does not require marrying the same man. It just requires a group of adults – not necessarily even just singles – getting together and coming up with a strategy they can all responsibly share.

    • Jha,

      Such an arrangement within an Islamic or even Christian context requires people who live together to be married I’m afraid.

      Anyway there’s more from where I dug out that craziness.

      Behold, “Polygamy – The Ultimate Feminist Lifestyle”
      http://www.islamfortoday.com/polygamy3.htm

      It includes such interesting gems like, “Polygamy is an empowering lifestyle for women. It provides me the environment and opportunity to maximize my female potential without all the tradeoffs and compromises that attend monogamy.”

      • OW.

        You don’t share two decades of experience, and a man, without those friendships becoming very special.

        Yes, because men are TOTALLY things that can be shared.

        WTF?

      • SCRAPING FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS MUSLIMS?! WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY.

        And I call bullshit on the whole “living together must mean you are married”, because it’s called “having aunts and uncles and grandparents under same household” counts as a cooperative household.

        You know what? When my nephews (four of ’em!) were in town (before they moved to Bahrain) they lived within walking distance from their Tok Di and Tok Mi, who lived in a house that was joined to their Mak Long and Pak Long, and they were living with their Na Na (their aunt, who abhors being called a “Mak” because omg aku tak kawin lagi still muda laaa!). On occasion, Na Na’s boyfriend would be there to drive them around, but Na Na could drive, so that was no problem.

        Parents were busy working, but they had time to spend with their kids. It worked, even though it was messy and on occasion additional assistance was required.

        You don’t need to marry another woman to help. Sometimes grandparents would love to chip in. And that’s still Islamic.

      • And uncles and aunts and family members and et cetera. Yes it’s not universal, but that doesn’t mean that the only solution is OMG KAWIN SATU LAGI.

  4. Just to add my two cents: from my readings, I find it difficult to justify polygamy in today’s society given the manner in which polygamy was made acceptable in Islam during the Prophet’s time. It came to be during a time of war where women were being left widows with children to feed and didn’t have the income to do so. This was a completely different time and situation. It was originally put up in order to assist widows with children – not to sate a man’s sexual appetite with some young meat! And anyway, the women in Malaysia are able to get jobs of their own and we are not in a state where our men are dying, there are lots of families without breadwinners and food is dependent on the father.

    Lastly, I’m really opposed to polygamy for the simple fact that you are not required by Islamic law to actually tell your wife that you are getting another wife. Supposedly a man who is man enough to take on another wife is man enough to tell the first one. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to speak ill of Malaysian men, most Malaysian men aren’t that man enough. This part of the deal doesn’t seem to uphold the basis of equality in which Islam is supposed to uphold.

    And that’s all. Excuse me for butting in out of the blue. This was a good read, yet again.🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughts. Part of the problem with the ‘strongest’ justification for polygamy i.e. “helping” women in desperation is that it will always place women in a position little bargaining power. Reading the current literature that promotes polygamy, as one does, men are encouraged to marry divorcees, widows, and former sex workers in a kind of rescue mission. The assumption is that we will never get to live in a society where there will be financial and social support for women in need, and where divorce and sex work are not stigmatising. Polygamy is seen as a solution to a problem rather than addressing the problem society has with disrespecting divorced and single women, and sex workers.

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