The existent double standards that occur when polygyny is practiced, particularly when it is kept secret from the other wife or wives, make it acceptable and praiseworthy for a Muslim man to marry (or marry more than one wife) to guard his chastity, while when a Muslim sister marries for that reason only, she is considered lewd and desperate.
To further elucidate the complex nature of secret, serial polygynous marriages, and expound on the challenging, welcomed perspectives elicited by readers, let us begin by addressing the issue of the victims’ accountability.
Sisters such as Patty, Halima and Ruqayah are often blamed for getting themselves into messy situations without strongly considering that they are introduced to Islam through the “back door,” and are under the powerful influence of the men involved. Cult leaders, by definition, are expert manipulators, pathological liars, charming, and promiscuous. They entice, snarl, and seduce their victims through their apparent knowledge and practice of deen, impeccable modesty and observance of Islamic etiquettes, and abundant generosity. On the surface, these brothers possess all the qualities of someone who fears Allah and would make a good mate.
As a single, divorced sister traveling with a group, Ruqayah met her husband-to-be while being lost during her performance of Hajj. In a foreign country and disoriented, she was touched by the kindness of the respectable brother who offered to help her get back to her hotel. After the ordeal, contact information was exchanged and upon their return and many phone calls, he traveled to her country for dawah. Under this pretext, he visited her local masjid, was welcomed as a religious authority in it during his frequent visits, and eventually offered to marry her to complete “half her deen.” The marriage was not secret from her community, but it remained hidden from his community and country, including his wives.
Sometimes, however, a polygynous marriage is kept secret from the other wife or wives. According to some interpretations of Islam, polygyny does not require the permission of the wife, nor does it need to be justified by war, famine, natural disasters, or the like. As long as a Muslim man is God-fearing and just, he is free to marry a second, third, and fourth wife. Allah has stated in the Quran that women are given rights equal to the rights of men. Thus, Muslim women are free to marry to guard their chastity. However, the existent double standards make it acceptable and praiseworthy for a Muslim man to marry (or marry more than one wife) to guard his chastity, while when a Muslim sister marries for that reason only, she is considered lewd and desperate.
Regardless of how a sister enters into a polygynous marriage, the husband often has a strategic alliance that lends him great credibility and leverage: the “head” wife. She is generally as controlling and manipulative as the cult leader himself. The head wife is a powerful influencer, part of the abuse equation, and may even seek out the next victim herself. Although subjected to emotional, sexual, and/or religious abuse, the head wife idolizes her husband, is subservient to his every whim and desire, and sees pleasing him as her stairway to heaven. This is why legal records show the head wife is often prosecuted along with the cult leader for harm done to cult victims.
Breaking away from a cult can be as difficult, if not more, than breaking free from an abusive relationship. Contrary to various claims, victims of abuse might recognize the abuse and yet be unable to put an end to it. Law enforcement officers are most familiar with this phenomenon, when responding to domestic violence 911 calls at the same address time after time. Great efforts are currently being made within the Muslim community to raise the awareness on domestic abuse and its vicious cycles. The recognition that our community and religious leaders are in dire need of training is critical, so that 1) sisters who approach imams for help are not told to “go back and be patient,” and 2) brothers who are known to be abusive are held accountable for their actions.
Halima was able to break free from her cult, and exposed the brother in her locality for marrying and divorcing sisters in a secret, serial manner, abusing them, and even coercing them into unlawful, deviant sexual practices including threesomes with the head wife. When confronted with such a delicate and disturbing case, the community bowed down and failed Halima by excusing the brother from his wrongdoings simply by his making of an oath to Allah. Brothers involved in the case even asked the cult leader forgiveness for “backbiting him” while trying to discuss the case seeking resolution.
As long as the Muslim community is unable to socially condemn and hold brothers accountable for abusing sisters and the sanctity of marriage, secret serial marriages are bound to continue to occur. It is not enough for one community to take a stand and make the brother leave the community. In an age of advanced, instant communication, Muslims must use technology to their advantage to warn sisters from brothers known for their abusive tendencies, as it is the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (saw).
Enith Morillo is a scientist by profession and a writer by passion. Her writing is featured in the newly published “Many Poetic Voices, One Faith” and “Many Voices, One Faith II: Islamic Fiction Stories.” She is also the media liaison for the grass-root movement Healthy Families Initiative, a program dealing with domestic abuse in the Rhode Island Muslim community. You can visit her Umrah blog or contact her via email at enithcm [at] gmail.com.