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Saving second wives

By: Rafia Zakaria

THE title of the report is Equal and Free and by this selection it underscores its point: that the approximate 20,000 Muslim women living in the United Kingdom in polygamous marriages are neither.

Produced by a British-South Asian women’s organisation named Aurat, the report details the experiences of 50 Muslim women who are or have been a part of polygamous marriages. Presented in the House of Lords last week, its findings are predictably dismal: few of the 50 women recognised their rights under either Islamic or British law; many reported never having been consulted prior to second marriages; and nearly half complained that they received no support from their polygamous husbands.

Saving Muslim women, whether or not they are in polygamous relationships, is a popular cause in the Western world, where mainstream politicians can stack up their support behind the female half of a Muslim minority while still profiling and heaping suspicion on the male portion.

Know more: Inside polygamy: Reader response

Polygamy and honour crimes are recurrent favourites; neglected as issues by minority Muslim communities themselves, they provide prominent pulpits on which the need for reform within Muslim communities can be proclaimed. It’s a tricky mix, not least because the issues themselves, particularly the culturally imposed subservience and marginalisation of women, are so real, their victims hapless and routinely denied dignity or justice by their own.

The Aurat report lays out just this tense conundrum between Muslim women in diaspora, the Western politicians who want to save them and the rest of the Muslim world that largely ignores them. The details of the reported cases are all damning. A woman named Madiha complains how she did not figure out that her husband was already married until he persistently refused to introduce her to his family. Another woman named Durdanah complains that her husband went off and married a much younger woman without her permission. When she objected, she was told that she had to accept the situation because it was his right to take a second wife.

Women must be informed that they can refuse polygamous arrangements by the insertion of an anti-polygamy clause in their nikahnamas.

The stories will be familiar to Pakistani readers, but added complications exist in the British context because British law does not recognise polygamous marriages. In many cases, therefore, the second, third or fourth wives have no legal status and no way to petition for support or rights under British law in the event of a divorce.

Surreptitious nikah ceremonies are the norm even though they bestow no legal status. Children from such marriages face further problems unless their mothers go through paternity testing and demand support from them on that basis.

The cumulative consequence is legal limbo; the rights owed them under Islamic law cannot be enforced because the community lacks the will and the power to do so. Similarly, their rights under British law remain suspended because as second, third or fourth wives, they have no legal status. Nearly all the 50 interviewed said they did not believe that the community would help them in the case of divorce or the non-payment of support.

All the problems shipped abroad have their origins at home. The precarious status of easily discarded wives, failures of enforcement of support, unilateral right to divorce are endemic in Pakistan. Deemed a non-issue for anyone except the women who face them (and who are too politically weak and socially underprivileged to take them up in any public forum), they proliferate abuse and injustice within families across the country without anyone to stop them.

The British-Muslim context provides a different if just as self-serving a solution: Baroness Cox who championed the report demanded a blanket ban on all Sharia. A charge against polygamy and its abuses thus morphs into an argument to deny group rights and religious recognition to the whole British Muslim community, a consequence that would render illegal all Islamic marriage contracts, including ones that forbid polygamous marriages.

In an arrangement of rights that has yet to yield any robust form of integration for British Muslims, a false choice is manufactured between religious identity and national identity, between being British and being Muslim, requiring the abandonment of one or the other.

As with the veil, then, polygamy ends up in the lot where Muslim women championing equal rights are forced to align either with the minority Muslim community that would like its cultural and religious distinctions recognised by the majority or with the mainstream British discourse that wants to paint the entire British Muslim minority as backward, retrogressive and misogynistic.

In many ways, it is this stark political choice that plays its own part in promoting the silences that allow the perpetuation of polygamy in Britain. Many British Muslim women facing abusive polygamous situations refuse to speak out because they believe they will be participating in the demonisation of British Muslim men were they to do so. Similarly, others find themselves agreeing to polygamous marriages because they believe them to be invested with a greater degree of religious legitimacy, a more authentically Islamic lifestyle than monogamy.

In the end, if the goal is empowerment the method must be education. Muslim women, whether in Pakistan or the UK, must be informed that they can refuse polygamous arrangements simply by the insertion of an anti-polygamy clause in their Islamic marriage contracts or nikahnamas. Men entering into marriage contracts can further be required to vouch that they are not already married, thus ensuring that they can be prosecuted for fraud if a previously existing marriage is later discovered.

The problem of polygamy, of women tricked into being secondary wives, of women abandoned without recourse and all the many variants of abuse that one finds in a plural marriage, can all be avoided only if tools from both faith and law are put to the task of empowerment and consequent elimination of the practice.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.