The United Kingdom has a large Muslim population – 5.4 percent, according to the Office of National Statistics, or about 3 million people.
Although polygamy is permitted under sharia law, most Muslim men do not have two, three or four wives. In fact, according to “The Salafi Feminist”, a Canadian blogger, average Muslims view second wives “as little more than secret mistresses, home-wreckers, and simply selfish”.
However, the growing influence of Islam in the UK combined with a redefinition to allow homosexuals to marry makes a push for legal polygamy more likely. In a recent article in The Conversation, a Muslim lawyer argue that this is a cause that feminists should champion.
Zainab Naqvi, a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham, pointed out that the traditional definition of marriage in English law as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” is no longer valid.
“Critics exposed this first legal definition of marriage as unrealistic even then. After all, divorce decrees were being granted before this case, so marriage wasn’t necessarily ‘lifelong’, and the meaning of ‘voluntary’ in this context was as elusive in 1866 as it is today. With the advent of same-sex marriage, the idea of ‘one man and one woman’ is also outdated. So what remains?”
Why not complete what same-sex marriage began and recognise plural relationships? Muslim women are suffering because their polygamous marriages have no legal recognition, argues Ms Naqvi. Without legal protection second wives become second-class citizens and are socially stigmatised.
It is not true, she contends, that all women in polygamous marriages are coerced and miserable. On the contrary, some feel “supported and empowered”. She argues that “It’s hard, therefore, to see how the objective of gender equality is advanced when the law negatively affects the very women it’s meant to benefit.” There is already plenty of oppression in monogamous marriages, so how does banning polygamous marriages help? She writes:
“If gender equality is to have real meaning, it should empower, not marginalise women, regardless of the type of marriage they choose to be in. Only once this has been addressed can moves be made towards a more inclusive understanding of marriage.”
Mr Naqvi’s argument is perfectly logical in a society in which same-sex marriage is legal. Once upon a time, marriage was only for life, only for men and women, and only for couples. Now we have divorce and same-sex marriage? Can the couple bit really be that important?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.