Thursday December 02, 2021

On polygyny

September 02, 2020

The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation to come out of that era in Pakistan. It was decades later that other Muslim countries were able to follow suit. The clergy in Pakistan, however, has been up in arms against the ordinance for years. As they would be. The ordinance curtails the right of men to marry upto four women at a time without the burden of legal consequences and responsibilities.

In July 2020, with the country in the throes of a pandemic, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) decided it was the best time to declare it unnecessary for a man to seek permission from the first wife for a second, third and/or fourth marriage. For the CII it seems like nothing justifies its current existence more than opposing the Muslim Family Laws, certainly not pushing for stringent legislation regarding cleanliness and hygiene during the pandemic.

In Pakistan, sides have already been picked on the matter of limited polygyny and the debate is invariably inconclusive or non-conclusive. But what about the beneficiaries of the contradictions in our laws and practices, especially when civil and religious matters are mixed and matched to order.

The CII's latest 'advice' is one such mix & match. The Council wants that men should not have to ask for permission to remarry and that they should be trusted to be fair to their wives. Meaning that in the matter of polygyny, the CII wants the man to be the judge and jury of his own case, while women and the actual judiciary should have no say in it. We all know how that works out in reality.

In a country where only one percent of the women have the free will to make decisions about their marriage and barely 16 percent are consulted by family, the CII wants to make them more vulnerable than they already are. Those in the CII are not concerned about the implementation of present laws regarding wife and child support. Our lower-income and slum areas are full of women abandoned, not divorced, by their husbands. These women are left to fend for their children while the men remarry without ever looking back. These poor women have no recourse to the law and no society to fall back on. They are the ones who should be taken on as second, third and fourth wives, not under-aged girls. But has the CII ever said anything about them? Never, not even to save face. They don’t care that polygyny in Islam is highly conditional and is clearly about supporting widows and orphans.

Such callous declarations by the likes of the CII solve absolutely nothing, only encourage some men to defy civil laws by hiding behind selective interpretation of religion.

The fact that Islam allows conditional polygyny cannot be denied. But the condition is very clear: demonstration of uncompromising certainty that the man will treat his wives equally in every way. Thousands of years of human evolution has yet to come up with a mechanism to ascertain fairness in matters of the heart. And the question at the heart of this matter is about the ability of men to deal with more than one woman equally. Ask women and they will tell you how 'fairly' they are treated when their husbands take on another wife. Marriage is a civil contract in Islam, simply an agreement between the groom and bride, so the check and balance cannot be just left to one party alone.

Even the CII will agree, albeit reluctantly, that polygyny in Islam is not about oppressing women but supporting them; it came to be at a time when gender proportion got lopsided after a large number of Muslim men were killed in wars leaving behind widows and families without any support. That’s no longer the case, yet most clerics refuse to consider current population stats and realities.

And so the very basis of modern-day polygyny in Pakistan is gender inequality. That women are inferior to men, and that’s why men should be free to take on multiple wives. That’s unconstitutional. No matter what the clergy ‘advises’, we are bound by law to accept gender equality. So when platforms like the CII give advice in contravention of everything the world has collectively agreed upon and achieved so far, it’s a sign that such platforms need to be reformed and made more inclusive. Humans are human because they are fallible. To ensure justice, all stakeholders need to be proportionately represented. Right now, there’s only one female representing 50 percent of Pakistan’s population in the 20-member CII.

Interestingly, the Council of Islamic Ideology was founded in 1962 by the same Ayub government that promulgated the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance a year earlier. No objection was raised about the ordinance then; it’s fairly recent that the CII decided that parts of the ordinance are un-Islamic. If only they would conduct a survey to find out how many of the second, third and fourth wives were actually widows or orphans in genuine need of support.

The writer is an executive producer, Geo News and editor of Jang – The Economist annual edition.

Twitter: @munazza193