Polygamy and power

April 19, 2015

The increasing social acceptability of polygamy normalises a cruel practice

Polygamy and power

Dear all,

I’m not quite sure at what point it became perfectly acceptable for educated, well-placed men in Pakistan to marry more than just the one wife. Yes, the country’s religion has always allowed it but it was not always the norm; in fact in educated circles it was something that was frowned upon.

In Pakistan’s early years, serious efforts were made to discourage the practice and legislation made the whole process less easy for a man, by requiring him to get his first wife’s consent.

The wife’s written consent was made a requirement under the 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance. But as the years went by and religion cast a long shadow over the laws of the land, this was largely ignored. And one year ago, the country’s Council of Islamic Ideology declared such legislation to be ‘un-islamic’.

But it’s not just the fact that this is no longer considered a mandatory step that has made this practice more widespread in urban areas and amongst educated, affluent circles. This is no longer a case of a young man from a rural or tribal area having one city wife and one village wife, nor is it just the case of a busy professional having a serious mid-life crisis and marrying a colleague or student half his age, despite already having a wife and children.

Now we all seem to know of somebody who is in this second wife type situation, and what is particularly worrying is the number of women who seem to be quite content to become unofficial wives and to have a marriage contract with a man who, while not being able to acknowledge them socially, will essentially foot their bills (presumably in exchange for having conjugal rights).

I have seen a number of cases where men who lust after young divorcees or other relatively vulnerable single women suggest that they should offer them ‘protection’ by marrying them. The man thus disguises his lust or obsession or extra marital interest as both noble gesture and religious duty.

This increasing trend is summed up aptly by Rafia Zakaria who in an October 2014 piece on the subject wrote that "in contemporary Pakistan, polygamy is being revived as the marital expression of the authentically Islamic society that Pakistan so aches to be, touted as a solution to the problem of destitute women, the prevalence of adultery, a man’s greater need for sex, and myriad other problems".

This revival of polygamy obviously re-emphasises deep rooted stereotypes and reinforces gender inequality: man is seen to be the protector and the decision-maker, woman is seen as the weakling in need of male protection.

It is astonishing how even that much maligned species, the Pakistani politician, is not criticised in this respect. If a senior minister, without his wife’s assent, marries a young woman his daughter’s age, it is largely unremarked upon despite the parochial, conservative family background of the politician. Another senior minister might, despite having a wife and children, marry a high profile member of parliament and this will elicit no comment or criticism. In both cases criticism, if any, will be of the woman: it is her morals and her behaviour that will be criticised -- not the man’s.

In Pakistan today, the increasing social acceptability of bigamy and polygamy has normalised an anachronistic and often cruel practice. It has also undermined notions of gender equality and female empowerment in this society. No doubt there are many people who think polygamy (especially of the four wives variety) is a wonderful system and who will say that marrying a woman is better than retaining her as a mistress… however I cannot agree with them.

Best wishes

Polygamy and power