Why does a woman in a Muslim country refuse to accept her husband taking on a second wife? Has polygamy – due to social factors like an increase in the percentage of women – become more acceptable to women in the Muslim world? Why is the percentage of polygamous marriages on the rise in some countries in the Muslim world and on the decline in others?
We will seek answers to these questions – looking particularly at Arab countries – by delving into the matter with a number of women who have had experience with polygamy, and we will try to determine current social attitudes towards the institution of polygamy in these countries and identify possible reasons that explain those attitudes.
`Izzah Husayn tells us: “I got married at the age of 18. I was at college studying literature. My father had treated his children very harshly, and my mother was always weak in front of my father’s decisions at home. These circumstances pushed me to make a bad choice in my first husband. I was carried away by emotions. He had dropped out of school after completing middle school. We were distantly related by blood.
“Though neither of my parents approved of this marriage, I was totally committed to him. Some of my brothers refused to attend our wedding or visit me thereafter.
“What matters is that after getting married, I suffered a lot because of that husband. He was very harsh towards me. He was stubborn about almost everything in our lives. I bore with a lot of his ways. My father had to provide partially for me and my children. What pained me the most after all that, and what caused me to leave him was that I learned he had gone behind my back and taken a second wife. I asked for a divorce, and I got one after a long and difficult ordeal.
“Taking care of three children on my own was very difficult. It was also hard to have to get divorced at the age of 35. I thought about getting married again to solve my problems –emotional as well as financial. However, I did not find anyone suitable who was not already married.
“I was forced to accept being a second wife, after experiencing the difficulty of being alone, especially since the man was well-off financially and promised to take care of my children. It pains me sometimes that his first wife knew nothing about our marriage. However, it seems that she is a peaceable gentlewoman who does not to make difficulties for people. This is from Allah’s grace upon us.”
He Married His Second Wife After He Got Rich
Al-Hâjjah Umm Khayrî is from Upper Egypt. She says: “I am a simple woman. I got married very young and gave birth to eight children. My husband was a construction worker who traveled to many Arab countries on account of his work. When Allah made him prosperous, he married another woman in Cairo. She was a divorcee with four children of her own. She was very different than me in her way of speaking, her clothing, and her lifestyle. My husband spent most of his time with her. He gave her children more care than gave our own. She received most of his money.
“As for us, we had to be content with little. I really had no choice in the matter. However, when my husband fell ill and he ceased having so much money, his second wife left him. She was not prepared to take care of him. I opened my door to him, and he is now dependent on the care of his wife and his children. Praise be to Allah. I have no regrets. I sincerely pray that he gets better.”
Lubnâ Sâlih says: “I was married to a doctor. He died unexpectedly while I was still in my prime and I was left to take care of three daughters on my own. I began to learn about my religion at that time and started to observe proper Islamic dress. I then received an offer of marriage from a man to become his second wife in secret, without his first wife knowing about it. I accepted this for a number of reasons.
“First, I wanted to protect myself from falling into sin. Then, I wanted this man to be like a father to my children, even if only part-time. I often do not see him for weeks at a time.
“The lack of equity in treatment does not bother me, since absolute equity is only possible when the first wife knows about what is going on and is understanding about it. Also, my husband’s children are not able to understand this situation. This is why I must put up with secrecy and an unequal share of his time. This is better that having to cope with anxiety and trouble. I wish to obey my husband and earn the blessings of making him pleased with me. Praise be to Allah, he is happy with me and finds happiness in the little bit of time that he is able to spend with me.”
Polygamy is on the Rise in Egypt
The Islamic preacher Amal Tawfîq is of the opinion that women in Egypt are not ready to accept polygamy. She says: “The Egyptian wife generally views her husbands as her personal property and her husband’s income as belonging exclusively to her and her children. I have observed in our social landscape a large number of polygamous marriages, but those marriages were kept secret in fear of the first wife’s reaction.
“The difficulty of polygamy, the social problems that result from the husband giving preference to one wife and her wishes to the detriment of the other, and his inability to treat his wives justly – these are all consequences of the clandestine nature of the second marriage. Anything that has to take place secretly is bound to be suspect in many ways.
“At the same time, a man today is faced with many problems on many different levels. He is unable to practice his rights, whether general or vocational, in our society. Because of this, he sometimes takes it out on his wives and treats them badly. A man in these circumstances often tends to show favoritism to one wife. This makes many women scared of polygamy.”
Dr. Salwâ Sâlih, a gynecologist, has this to say: “I have worked in the Gulf states for roughly ten years. In spite of the fact that polygamy is quite common there among traditional families, young women and the majority of young men in the Gulf – even in Saudi Arabia – do not accept polygamy like it was accepted in their mothers’ time. The primary reason for this change of attitude is the media. As for social causes, there have most certainly been many mistakes in husbands’ treating their wives unjustly. This has contributed to the decline in polygamy.
“In Egypt, on the other hand, I have observed that polygamy is on the rise in certain sectors. The large numbers of unmarried women and economic pressures compel many young women and even divorcees to accept being second wives in secret.”
Refusing to be a Second Wife
Hudâ Wasfî says: “I refuse to get into a polygamous marriage, since women are not prepared to put it into practice. Some women accept polygamy on a theoretical level, but when it comes to actually living in a polygamous marriage, the first wife will do everything in her power to fight the second marriage. I refuse to live with all that enmity and hatred.”
Salwâ al-Sanâdîlî says: “I refuse to accept a polygamous marriage, because what I will not accept for myself I would not impose upon someone else.”
Fathîyyah Jamâl, an engineer, says: “I refuse to get into a polygamous marriage, because I have never seen any example of a man who can even show justice between his children. There are still too many fathers – and even mothers – who treat their sons better than their daughters. How can you expect such men to show equal treatment to more than one wife?”
Munâ Hâmid says: “I refuse polygamy, because most of the time it is the first wife who has to make all the sacrifices. She has to live through the difficult times under tight economic circumstances. She has to make a lot of sacrifices during the early years of marriage. Then when the husband becomes financially secure and has a stable family life, he goes and marries another woman who can reap what the first wife has sown. This is not fair.”
The Need of the Woman is the Determining Factor
We spoke to Dr. Ilhâm Faraj, a professor of Sociology. She said: “Polygamy is not determined by law or by the support of the media as much as it is a consequence of necessity. A woman might be forced to accept it because of difficult circumstances. Many young women might regard being a second wife better than remaining single. In the long run, it is usually the second wife who is accepting of polygamy. The difficulty is usually with the first wife. Sometimes the first wifeis forced to accept it because of her own limited circumstances, and sometimes she declares war or leaves her husband.”
Dr. Ra’fat `Uthmân, a professor of Islamic Law, holds a different view. He says: “Justice between wives is the legal foundation of polygamy. It is not up to the first wife to accept the second marriage or reject it. Being just is the responsibility of the husband. It is not something simple or easy to achieve. It takes a lot of effort. Polygamy, for the most part, is for the woman’s benefit. It is a legal, financial, and emotional responsibility for the man.”