Stories about polygamy tend to surge and ebb in the media, but they never fail to intrigue people. Recently in South Africa, a Zulu man married four women–all at once–making the most popular story on the BBC news website. In the video, a male wedding guest gives a thumbs-up to the marriage(s), claiming that monogamous marriages across the world are breaking down as a result of adultery.
Later, the narrator serves up a classic: with all those wives, what man will have time to cheat? So, yes, it seems to be all about sex and keeping the man carnally satiated so he does not go astray. But what do the wives have to say?
From the wives’ perspective, there is Hatijah Aam, founder of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Running what sounds like a matchmaking service, Hatijah herself had introduced her husband to a future co-wife, a mother of seven. The club has been successful at marrying men and women from neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, and even as far as Australia. The virtues of polygamy, according to Hatijah, echo the reasoning in religious texts I’ve become so accustomed to: it helps single mothers, “old maids”, and former sex workers (a new addition!) out of what is ostensibly abject misery.
Looking at the social context in Malaysia, it’s understandable how polygamous relationships can thrive: women are chronically at an economic disadvantage, a female-initiated divorce is a difficult, cumbersome process, and if it is successful, women shoulder the stigma and burden of being fair game to any Malay-Muslim man. Pinning the label “unwanted goods” on former sex workers, single mothers, and divorcees speaks volumes about the precarious status women have in society; women are not only defined by their marital (and sexual) status, but also seem to lack avenues though which to better their lives.
For a while I’ve been interested in what women in polygamous marriages have to say about their relationship with their husband, co-wives, and with their faith, particularly when feminist buzz words like “choice”, “rights”, and “consent” are used. Take for instance this argument: in a monogamous marriage, a woman has the right to choose her spouse, and so, in principle, a woman should be able to exercise the right to request and choose an additional spouse for her husband if it means improving their marital situation. It will prove interesting when the role of rights and agency are raised in response to legislation against polygamy in numerous countries across the globe. There’s also an argument that “feminist” polygamy allows women “to have it all”: work hard and have a great arrangement with co-wives who will look after their kids (providing of course that the co-wives aren’t so career-minded).
Like polyamory and open marriages, polygamy is not common for obvious reasons, with jealousy being the main one. The few women who engage in polygamous marriages will find their rights protected (in some countries), but deeper psychological and sociological questions remain. How do their choices impact all other women? Will a concept of polygamy that is truly women-centric subvert a system in which some women see sharing a husband the only way out of economic or social hardship? Will every wife have a happy sex life?
Tightening conditions on such marriages may appear as posing restrictions on a woman’s choices and rights, but having clear parameters in place prevents men from marrying women for exploitative reasons often disguised as noble ones. In Indonesia, laws have become increasingly lax to accommodate men who wish to tie the knot multiple times, even if they lack the financial means (or the guts) to tell their first wives.
Polygamy, alongside housewifery and pornography, is just one of the few issues women continue to struggle to define as either feminist or not. And so a belief in ending oppression in all its many guises should be the compass of every feminist who finds herself lost. To end, I leave you with Hatijah Aam saying that polygamy should be something beautiful, rather than something disgusting. I say, fair enough–keeping in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Alicia Izharuddin is a postgraduate student in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental African Studies in London with a keen interest in sexuality in Southeast Asia. She has written for a variety of media outlets on feminist and religious issues. An unedited version of this article was previously published at Muslimah Media Watch.