By: Alexandra Kinias —
Polygamy, a medieval practice, is still alive today in societies where sharia rules. And even in countries where the laws don’t permit it, the imams in the mosques perform polygamous religious matrimonial ceremonies. As the powers of the imams are stronger than secular laws, these religious marriages are valid without the need to register them with the authorities. So, an immigrant to a western society can have a registered wife in front of the law, and another one or two who are not. Even though polygamy is legalized in Islam, the most faithful women strongly stand against sharing their husbands with another woman. The fact that the law permits a husband to engage in a sexual relation with another woman, doesn’t stop the first wives from feeling betrayed and cheated, by both the husbands and the state.
Islam permitted the second marriage under very strict conditions and terms. And against the beliefs of many, it was neither promoted nor encouraged. Justice between the wives is the foundation upon which polygamy was based. In the Quranic verse 4:3, Allah says, “….…if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then [marry] only one….. That is the best way to avoid doing injustice.”
Islam permits a man to marry a second wife only if he is absolutely certain that he will treat his wives fairly, and that he would share everything equally between them. In other words, a man cannot favor one woman over the other, emotionally and financially, which in reality is impossible. Failing to do that precludes the validity that permits polygamy. Men’s rationalization of polygamy without following the clear guidelines that allowed it is a clear abuse to the rights granted to them.
Reasons why men marry a second wife?
With no consideration to the emotional, mental and psychological impact they inflict on their first wives and kids, men marry second wives simply because they can. With the premise that they have neither broken the law nor sinned, they practice their right to engage in sexual relations with multiple partners. This inherited medieval practice will not be obliterated in the near future. On the contrary, in societies where conservatism is on the rise and/or economy is declining, polygamy is gaining momentum.
In spite of the clear religious justifications that permitted polygamy, for most men it is just a fling. The ludicrous justification of their actions remains elusive; whether it is discontentment or boredom with their marriages, or a self-reward for life achievements. For some polygamy is a social status. With financial gains comes a new wife.
In crude terms, polygamy in reality is a license for infidelity. Polygamous conduct is propelled by men’s primal desire: sex, which is not only accepted by their peers, but is often defended too. Advocates of polygamy compare a man’s second marriage with extramarital affairs in western societies. Naturally, their ridiculous comparison favors and condones polygamy. They incriminate the western sinners who engage in extramarital affairs, while defending Muslim men for practicing a right granted to them by their faith. That’s an absurd and irrational argument, but expected from those who ignore the fact that extramarital affairs are neither accepted in western societies nor legalized by the law.
In Islam, the consent of the first wife is required for a husband to marry a second one. The first wife then has the choice to either stay married or get a divorce. And while a few men confront the first wife with their decision, the majority keeps the marriage secret in fear of confrontation that may lead to a divorce or social tarnishing, especially among family, friends or coworkers.
With the loose family laws in Egypt, men managed to keep their second marriages clandestine. But new laws were drafted to tighten the loopholes to ensure that wives are informed when their husbands register the second marriage. Inevitably, and in defiance to these laws, men either don’t register their second marriages – similar to what Muslims do in Western societies – or conclude an ‘Orfi’ marriage, which is a simple contract drafted between the bride and groom and signed by two male witnesses.
First wives vs. second wives
No doubt second marriages violate the trust between spouses, often lost forever in some cases. It is not just the jealousy from another woman that drives the first wives, but for most it is a manifestation of failure as a woman, a partner and a wife. Not to mention the tormenting emotional pain they endure. Sadly enough, and due to several factors, not all first wives choose to terminate this demeaning love triangle. Financially dependent women would resentfully stay in this hurtful relationship, accepting emotional crumbs from their husbands, with no one to thank but the lawmakers that drafted the laws that guaranteed women’s submissiveness. Had divorce laws granted women financial independence, not many would stay in a polygamous relationship. The situation is even worse when kids are involved. Because of the loose child support laws in Egypt, many men abandon their financial obligations towards their kids, without fear of punishment. Some would do it out of negligence while others to pressure women to stay in a dysfunctional marriage against their will. Economically threatened women are compelled to accept the situation out of financial need.
Why women become a co-wife?
Women in Egypt are living under continuous societal pressure to get married, have kids and start a family. Some would marry incompatible partners simply to avoid staying single, even if it means that this marriage inevitably would end with a divorce. Divorced women are not in any better position than the single ones. They are also subjected to their share of societal pressure. How the society perceives and treats single and divorced women play a major role in spreading polygamy.
To be objective, and before throwing the blame on these women, it is important to consider thoroughly the reasons why they choose to accept a part time husband. Circumstances vary from one case to the other, and more important than denouncing these women, it is imperative to understand why they choose to become a co-wife, tolerating the social smear, labeled as home wreckers and husbands’ thieves.
There are multiple social factors that contribute to the existence and sustainability of this love triangle, on top of which is economical. Economic pressures compel young single women, divorcees and widows with kids, to accept becoming a second wife, in secret. For many, marriage becomes a necessity and becoming a co-wife and have emotional and financial stability is better than staying single. Having a man that would provide the emotional and financial stability to a widow and her kids is a dream come true to many. Also the societal pressures on single women, who passed their prime age, leave them with fewer choices of single men and more of married ones.
While polygamy is no doubt an emotional crime committed against the marriage, it is more relevant not to blame the women who take part in it as much as blaming the laws that favor men. These laws force women into one form of submission or another. The sustainability of polygamy is an affirmation that society lacks empathy, fairness and understanding in treating its women. Eradicating polygamy will only materialize if collective efforts unite to combat the reasons that cause women to fall for such marriages in the first place.
However, it is unfair to assert that all second wives marry for financial reasons or societal pressure. In a society where out-of-marriage sex in still a taboo, marriage is the answer to both men and women who are seeking a good time, with no strings attached. Many of these marriages are short lived. When the sexual desire expires, so does the marriage. For some men with means, it becomes a way of life, always ready for a new adventure. And for a wide range of these men, such adventures take place with the knowledge of the first wives who would keep a blind eye, knowing that at the end the man always comes back to her nest.