Posted on February 23, 2009

Happily Married?

Zubeida Malik, BBC News, February 20, 2009

Divorced last year, 30-year-old Amina is slowly rebuilding her confidence.

During the 10 years of her marriage, the mother of three says her husband tried to force her to accept his taking another wife.

She resisted, even though he said that it was the right thing to do in Islam, their shared religion.

“There was tremendous amounts of pressure from him,” she says.

“It drops your confidence–you feel worthless, unworthy of someone’s companionship. A failure as a wife, a failure as a person.”

Even though she said no, she still has no idea whether he married someone else without telling her.

Mission impossible

Polygamy is practised by many different cultures and religions.

The rules within Islam are strictly defined and make it virtually impossible for a man to take more than one wife. A man should only marry women who are divorced, widowed, ill or if his first wife cannot have children.

A husband has to treat each wife equally, down to the time, money and emotional support he gives them.

Polygamy is illegal under UK law, but religious marriages are not registered and so are not legally valid–a man might marry his first wife in a civil ceremony and then marry someone else in a religious one.

There are no official figures on the number of people in polygamous marriages in Britain, but Zlakha Ahmed, a project manager of Apna Haq, a woman’s support service based in Rotherham, says that the number of polygamous marriages is growing.

In her experience, it is younger British-born Muslim men who are the driving force for the increase in numbers.

She says that women under pressure to enter into polygamous relationships often do not have anyone to turn to for help and that this can lead to mental health problems.

Religious figures within the Muslim community are also concerned about the number of men practicing polygamy.

Mufti Barkatullah, a member of a UK Sharia Council, says he sees over 20 cases every year of women experiencing polygamy-related problems.

“Islamic law is very clear that it has to be done in the context of fairness, justice and fulfilling the duties, and in a situation where there is a dire need,” he says.

According to Mr Barkatullah, the rules are so strict that practicing polygamy is “mission impossible” in most cases.

“They end up violating Sharia law–committing gross inequality and injustices with their various spouses, neglecting their duties towards their dependents and committing forgery, hypocrisy and constant lies,” he says.

According to Mufti Barkatullah, Imams are misled by men who do not admit to having other wives.

My co-wife

But some women say that if practiced according to the strict guidelines of Islam, polygamy can be a positive experience and the answer to many women’s needs.

Doha, a 47-year-old who has been in a polygamous marriage for 15 years, was divorced with four children when she met her husband and agreed to be his second wife. Both wives know each other, but have separate houses and lives.

Her husband spends alternative nights with each of his wives, and is equal in his financial support–although he does not buy exactly the same luxuries for each wife.

“Maybe I would prefer to have books and my sister wife, my co-wife, would prefer to have a dress bought for her,” says Doha.

“The really positive point is that I know I have time for myself. I know that if I want to work or study, to have friends come around or to visit people to go away on holiday that I can do that, I have that time in my life.”

But for Baroness Sayeda Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion, the loophole that allows multiple religious marriages is a legal anomaly that needs looking at.

“We have just avoided discussing or dealing with this matter head on,” she says.

“There has to be a culture change. That culture change has to be brought about by policy makers taking a very clear stance on this issue.

“In this country one married man is allowed to marry one woman. That is the way and that must be the way for everybody who lives in this country.”