i was so hoping to avoid this issue; hoping that the fierce debate raging* in australia would somehow bypass nz, so that i wouldn't have to talk about it at all. but i wasn't quite so lucky - radio nz decided to have a discussion about it on the panel and called me in (right at the end of the clip).
basically, an australian sheikh is calling for polygamy (well technically polyandry, ie one husband with two or more wives) to be recognised by the australian government, in the same way that it is recognised in britain. the reason for his call is to protect the rights of women who enter into these marriages. as you can imagine, all hell broke loose.
there is no doubt that there is an issue here. islamic law allows a maximum of four wives at a time. however, this is not a requirement, nor even a recommendation. in fact the only verse of the Qur'an that mentions the subject finishes with the phrase "but one is better for you, if only you knew". from which one would conclude that the norm should be one wife unless there are some exceptional circumstances.
such exceptional circumstances might be a wife who is not able to bear children but who doesn't want to leave the marriage. yes, adoption is an answer, if her husband agrees to that. but if he doesn't, she may prefer a second wife to a divorce. however, polygamy was particularly relevant in times of war, where there were a higher proportion of unmarried women to unmarried men. in a social structure that doesn't permit sex outside of marriage and where sex is not to be part of a casual physical relationship but rather part of a more permanent and emotionally-involved relationship, multiple marriages were seen to be an answer.
it was considered cruel to require women to abstain from sex simply because there weren't enough men around; nor should they be taken advantage of by men using them casually for sex. so it was a social structure that was seen as the best solution for those particular circumstances.
is it still relevant today? well, the fact is that it is happening, and my sense is that the number of polygamous marriages is on the rise. when they happen in a western country, the problem is that the legal protections for women are not available. so, for example, the right to claim maintenance, to ensure a fair share of the husband's time, to receive a fair divorce settlement are not available to these women. in fact, if things go sour, there is really nowhere to turn.
there are some questions which arise. if polygamy is illegal in australia and nz, how come it's happening? that's simply because there will be a marriage ceremony held in a mosque but never legally registered. in terms of the law, it is a de facto relationship, and there is no law in this country that prohibits people from being in more than one de facto relationship. which means that if the first marriage is legally recognised, and the second marriage is a de facto one, then the second wife will have no rights in law. that is not a good state of affairs, no matter how you look at it.
the second question is why women would enter into such relationships. i can understand the first wife agreeing to a second marriage. if the alternative means divorce and abandonment, and the prospect of poverty and having to raise children on her own, staying in the marriage might be an option she prefers. the husband would then be required (under islamic law) to provide full maintenance for her ie food, house, clothes and medical expenses. he would also be required to spend half his time with her and her children. for many women, half a husband is better than no husband at all, and if he is earning well, is a much better option than the DPB and a lonely life with no sex.
what i really don't understand is the "other woman", or the second wife. what kind of woman would want to intrude into an existing relationship? why would you even think about taking another woman's husband away from her? is romantic love so powerful and blind that it totally ignores the suffering of another woman and her children? i just don't get it, but i know it happens and not just in the muslim world. i know of a few of non-muslim women whose husbands have come home, packed their bags and announced that they are going to live with the woman they have secretly been conducting an affair with for some months now. i heard of one charming fellow who did this when his wife was pregnant with their first child. ouch. aside from his being such an a*&*hole, i really wondered what his new girlfriend was thinking and why she would want to be with a guy who could walk out in a situation like that.
unfortunately there are no laws against this kind of behaviour. and there are no laws you could enact that would in any way be helpful - unless you go for the catholic option of not allowing divorce at all. other than that, there are basically two options. either you bring the full force of the law down on the man who has two wives, and send him to jail. in which case the women both lose a partner and are unlikely to thank you for ruining their lives which were going very well until now. or you legally recognise both marriages, and ensure that both women get the full protection of the law.
except that the second option seems to provoke quite a high degree of moral outrage. which takes me to the point i was trying to make on the radio. it just seems to be a little hypocritical to get all steamed up about polygamy, yet allow pornography to be legal. i'd say most of the latter is much more degrading to women than polygamy, in terms of the objectification of women, the ignoring of their sexual needs and desires, the regular brutality and the sheer misogyny of most porn. plenty of porn shows apparently happy threesomes which we are supposed to accept as being perfectly legal, because it's between consulting adults. yet polygamy (and the islamic version categorically does not allow threesomes; it's strictly one woman at any one time) which may involve committed and loving relationships is viewed as immoral. is seems to me that finding the one acceptable and the other not would involve just a wee bit of cognitive dissonance. you'd either want both to be illegal (because it's immoral and degrading), or both to be legal (because it's an activity entered into by consenting adults).
which is not to say that i advocate polygamy. i don't think it's an ideal situation. i hate how it is used in many countries in a way that is harmful and degrading to women. ie first wife gets old so just go out and get a younger version. happy days. for the husband at least.
and the one thing i totally oppose is one or both of the wives living on social welfare. according to islamic law, it's completely wrong. the man is responsible for providing and if he can't provide for one wife, then he is required not get married until his circumstances improve. if he can't provide for more than one wife, then he has to stick to one. there are no two ways about it, and i couldn't stand a situation where the state welfare system was enabling polygamy. wrong, wrong, wrong.
so to conclude: i'm really confused. well conflicted would be the better word. i know of women in a polygamous marriage in this country who are extremely happy. i don't see how i can judge them or tell them that what they are doing is wrong. they don't feel any sexual jealousy so who am i to feel it on their behalf? isn't it a learned behaviour anyway? on the other hand, i recognise how polygamy leads to gross inequality and quite a lot of suffering for many women in such marriages. someone, please give me an easy answer.
* hat tip for links to irfan yusuf