My husband has three wives: myself, work and the laptop. 😛 #polygamy
— Aisha H Rasheed (@ishahr) February 15, 2013
Polygamy in the Middle East and the modern Islamic world might not be what we think it is from an outsider’s perspective. In light of the recent classroom discussion about marriage and women’s rights in the Modern Middle East, polygamy seemed to be the next big question that needed to be addressed.
The first important distinction that needs to be made is that there is a difference between Polygamy and Polygyny. The former is the practice where an individual can have more than one wife or husband at the same time. Polygyny is what is practiced in Islam and is the practice where a man can have multiple wives but a woman cannot have multiple husbands.
Prior to the advent of Islam, polygyny was openly practiced in the Middle East where men could marry as many women as they wanted. Most often, this would lead to the mistreatment of all the women who were married to the man. Men would also marry women who were left under their care, i.e. orphans or widows. It was also common practice during the Ottoman rule for the sultan to maintain a harem of women some of whom were wives of the sultan. This would also lead to the mistreatment of women in the harem.
In order to curb these practices, the Quran provides some guidelines for polygyny. The Quran states that a man is only allowed to marry up to four women. More importantly, he can only take on a second, third, or fourth wife if he has the means to provide for all of them. He also needs the consent of the previous wife or wives in order to marry the next one. The original intention of allowing polygyny was to provide social security to widows, orphans, and women from the lowest income levels who didn’t have the means to support themselves. The recommendation however is to have a monogamous relationship. The allowance of additional wives is only for the betterment and protection of women in need and not merely an indulgence provided to men over women.
Currently polygamy is recognized under civil law in almost fifty countries, and recognized under customary law in an additional thirteen countries. It is much more widespread, as a legal practice, than most Americans realize.
Although recently, due to the dominance of the western world and its culture, the perception of polygamy has changed from being a common practice to being looked down upon as a violation of women’s rights. This has also led to a rise in feminism in the modern Islamic world. This feminist movement took two veins. One view called for the reinterpretation of the Quran which led to the conclusion that the guidelines for polygyny were put in place with the right intention. They believed that the guidelines sought to help women and ensure their support and protection. This view also deems the Islamic approach to women as progressive for its day and no different than other religious texts of its time. The other approach seems more westernized and deems Islamic law as male dominated. They believe that they only way out of polygyny would be to reevaluate the political and civil laws without relying on a reinterpretation of the Quran.
Anecdotal accounts from friends who practice Islam suggest that polygyny is becoming increasingly looked down upon even though it is allowed under Islamic law. They say that it is still practiced in the rural areas of the Islamic parts of South Asia but not so much in upper middle class urban societies. They believe that polygyny is acceptable only under certain circumstances and is not solely intended to oppress women as the Western perception of polygyny suggests.
It seems that those who understand the intention behind polygyny in the Quran have found a balance between what has been preached and what needs to be practiced in today’s world. An article in the Saudi Arabian Al Arabiya news website suggests that women in Saudi Arabia today don’t mind being a second or third wife from fear of remaining spinsters. Since polygyny is more of a common practice than spinsterhood, it has become the alternative to being an unmarried woman in Saudi Arabian society. The article does not neglect that women don’t particularly look forward to being a second or third wife, and provides and interesting perspective on modern day practices and societal norms.
All in all, the practice of polygyny or monogamy is viewed differently based on background, belief, religion, and faith. What may seem inhumane to us, may seem ordinary to them. What may seem ordinary to us, may seem immoral to them. Personally, I believe that an acceptance that our way isn’t always the right way would definitely help create the much needed cultural bridge between the East and West. Is there a right answer? Will the rise of Islamic feminism ultimately lead to the end of polygyny in modern Islam? Do we intervene for the sake of women’s rights? Or do we agree to disagree and let each culture have their own traditions?