Italy Grapples With Polygamy

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2008

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Thousands of polygamous marriages like Hadi’s have sprung up throughout Italy as a byproduct of a fast-paced and voluminous immigration by Muslims to this Roman Catholic country.

Despite the obvious culture clash, Italian authorities largely turn a blind eye, leaving women in a murky semi-clandestine world with few rights and no recourse when things go especially badly, as they did in Hadi’s case.

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Italy is one of several European nations faced with the issue of polygamy. In Britain and Spain, where large Muslim communities have also settled, some officials favor recognizing polygamous marriage as a way to ensure the wives’ access to pensions, medical care and other state benefits.

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Sbai [Souad Sbai, a Moroccan-born Italian lawmaker] estimates that there are 14,000 polygamous families in Italy; others put the number even higher. Many take advantage of the so-called orfi marriage, a less formal union performed by an imam, that does not carry the same social or legal standing as regular marriage.

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When Sbai recently created a hotline for Muslim immigrant women, she was inundated with 1,000 calls in the first three months. To her astonishment, she had tapped into a hidden community of women desperate for information, many trapped in violent, polygamous households, isolated and lonely.

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Sbai, the politician, remembers polygamy from her childhood in Morocco. There, at least officially, the husband could marry no more women than he could adequately and justly care for. Here in Italy, she says, polygamy is often distorted. The immigrant experience is turned on its head: regression and isolation instead of integration.

Of the hundreds of women Sbai hears from, most are Moroccans and illiterate, at a much higher percentage rate than in Morocco. That also tends to isolate them, a condition compounded by mistrust of Italian authorities and fear of the unknown.

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