Polygamy for all

By Khaled Diab

A Saudi journalist is demanding that be given the right to four husbands. Should equality mean monogamy or for all?

6 January 2010

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 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 ,” 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 ).

“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 against her.

While few have openly voiced support for al-Bedair's call for this kind of equality in the Islamic 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 is a reality. In , 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. “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 polygny (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 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 physical needs.

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, 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.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 2 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

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