Polygamy has been in the news again, this time in Malaysia where Muslim authorities relaxed the law on this practice in the mid-1990s.
However, a large-scale study under way across the country indicates that, contrary to the claims of Islamic authorities there, polygamy harms everyone involved — including the men, some of whom admit that it is “stressful”.
Many conservative Malay-Muslim politicians ironically claim they have women’s needs at heart, saying: “In the modern context, there are more and more educated, professional women who remain unmarried so we should encourage polygamy”.
When things are done properly, they say, polygamy can create harmonious family life.
But Malaysian women’s rights organisation, Sisters in Islam, says that results coming in from their research project — launched in late 2007 — show that stress, quarrels and neglect are the norm in polygamous families. Preliminary findings show effects on :
* Children of first wives are very likely to be neglected by their father, especially if he has more than two wives or more than 10 children. Some say their father can hardly recognise them when they approach him.
* Children tend to resent their mother for not being able to prevent this neglect, and for becoming depressed and neglecting the children herself. Again, the effect is strongest for the children of first wives, because they have known something better. The children also lack confidence in their own ability to form a stable and happy family.
* Although Islamic laws make the husband responsible for maintenance of all his dependents, women in polygamous marriages contribute even more financially than is the norm in society. In fact, it seems that many low-to-middle-income men take another wife precisely for her economic contribution. A polygamous wife does not qualify for welfare support available for divorced or widowed women.
* Sexual and emotional support is often lacking. The practice of giliran, or turn-taking, is unworkable and wives become competitive, many turning to black magic to try and keep their man.
Even some men admit the whole thing is difficult:
Some polygamous men even seem to be trapped in the fable of masculine prowess. Taxi drivers with wives in two different states, or those who lose time travelling between families, say they are sometimes simply too tired to give time to their other family. When asked “Would you recommend polygamy to your children, your son?” a number of the better educated, professional middle class men said, “Seriously, I have to admit I wouldn’t. It’s quite stressful.”
But it’s the children who may decide the issue:
The findings about the impact on children may offer an important opening for advocacy and change that can ultimately benefit women. Historically, changes to patriarchal interpretations of Muslim laws have often come in an effort to protect children’s rights. For instance, many Muslim countries now follow the principle of the best interests of the child when deciding custody, rather than rigidly applying traditionalist interpretations which deny mothers custody.
If Malaysian Muslims want a future, they had better start working on this.