Polygamy for all
A Saudi journalist is demanding that women be given the right to four
husbands. Maybe she has a point
They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it does: the
roaring rage of injured male pride. This was amply demonstrated in
Egypt when a female Saudi journalist had the audacity to apply logic
and consistency to challenge an area of traditional male privilege.
In an article provocatively entitled "My Four Husbands and I", Nadine
al-Bedair quite sensibly posed the logical question: if Muslim men are
entitled to marry up to four wives, why can't women, in the spirit of
equality between believers, have four husbands?
"I have long questioned why it is men have a monopoly on this right.
No one has been able to explain to me convincingly why it is I'm
deprived of the right to polyandry," she complains.
The outspoken Saudi then goes on to deconstruct and question the
traditional justifications for polygamy, including that, in a
traditional patriarchal society, it is a shelter for widows, divorcees
and women who can't find a spouse; that men have greater sexual
appetites than women and get easily bored; that women can't handle
more than one man; and that, if women could have multiple husbands,
determining paternity would not be possible (an excuse made obsolete
by modern science).
"They tell me that I, as a woman, can't handle more than one man
physically. I say that women who cheat on their husbands and the
'sellers of love' [ie prostitutes] do much more," she counters.
Unsurprisingly, the article's honest tone and irreverence has
triggered a furious response from the traditional male establishment.
Some Islamic clerics have denounced the article and promised the
"blaspheming" author divine retribution, while an Egyptian MP has
decided not to wait that long and has already brought a lawsuit
While few have openly voiced support for al-Bedair's call for this
kind of equality in the Islamic marriage stakes, some Islamic
authorities have defended her by saying that her true purpose was to
highlight how badly some women are treated by their husbands,
especially those who take on second or third wives, despite Islam's
demand that a man treats all his wives equally.
For her part, al-Bedair ends her article with a call that society
either allows polyandry for women or comes up with a new "map of
marriage". One Cairo imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, believes the way to go is
to confine polygamy to the scrapheap of history. "In our world today,
polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides,
no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa," he opined.
And his view corresponds with that of the Egyptian mainstream.
Although Islam permits polygamy, most Egyptians are jealously
monogamous, with men who take on more than one wife often mocked or
marginalised by the community and the first wife often so full of
shame that she requests a divorce. Nevertheless, the question remains:
which is fairer and more equitable – monogamy or polygamy for all?
Even in monogamous societies, informal polygamy (and polyandry) are a
reality. In Europe, for instance, though most people, myself included,
are serial monogamists, many men and women have multiple partners or
lovers simultaneously, and there is a growing tendency to be open
about this. However, the law has not kept up.
"A man can live with two women in Britain perfectly legally, but if he
marries them both it's a crime punishable by up to seven years in
jail," Brian Whitaker observed on Cif earlier this year. "If a man
wants to have more than one wife, or a woman to have more than one
husband, and everyone enters into the arrangement openly and
voluntarily, what exactly is wrong with that?" he asks.
Of course, traditional models of polygamy (and polyandry, in a
minority of societies) tend to reflect social inequalities, both
between genders, generations and classes. And assuming a 50:50 gender
divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships
not only receive a small fraction of a man, but that some unfortunate
men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.
But there are perhaps more equitable modern models of polygamy and
polyandry emerging in which men and women who are largely social
equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear
family through which they hope better to fulfil their emotional and
Of course, as my wife points out, marriage is becoming, in many ways,
obsolete, as fewer and fewer people choose to take that path, and
European largely have the freedom to choose the living arrangement
that best suits them. But to my mind, it's a question of principle.
For example, gay people don't need to marry to share a life together,
but that should not mean they have no right to.
In my view, if the institution of marriage is to survive, it should
not be so limiting and be made flexible enough to enable people to
customise it to their unique needs.
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