“Mehr, you are a University of Chicago graduate—liberated and educated. What are you saying?” asked my non-Muslim friend incredulously. “Forget about the illegality of polygamy in the U.S., it’s just not you!”
I could understand her point of view– I was a Muslim American who had graduated from the University of Chicago where I had studied both Middle East history as well as public policy, and here I was defending polygamy, a dirty word to the ears of most Americans. To be clear, I was not advocating that polygamy was the ideal or the only way to interpret marriage, but rather that it carried some practical benefits, and therefore should not be discarded at first glance.
I began my analysis of polygamy because I did not want to be that person—the one with a condescending, Orientalist attitude who rolls her eyes at every tradition that is not Western. By profession, I weigh costs against benefits; I work 60 hour weeks observing the political economy and recommending the wisest course of action for my clients. So, I reasoned, why not adopt the same pragmatic, number crunching approach for analyzing polygamous unions?
Looking at the demographics, I see that my cohort of single Muslim American women who fall within the 25 to 35 age bracket is a growing population that has already begun to overtake its male counterpart. To compound the disparity between single Muslim American women and men, is the inconvenient fact that Muslim men are permitted to marry Christian or Jewish women while Muslim women are, arguably, forbidden the same luxury. The latter must first bring their romantic interests into the fold of Islam and only then can the couple walk down the aisle. If the man is not amenable to conversion, then the Muslim woman is out of luck.
Aside from the numbers conundrum, most single Muslim American women are professionals who are no less busy than their male peers. Just like Muslim American men reassure their mothers that they will meet the “girl” next Friday because they have to work overtime this week, so too do single Muslim females—setting up consulting businesses, applying for medical fellowships, or shifting to new cities for new jobs occupy these women’s precious time. It is not a far stretch to consider that a polygamous marriage might offer a pragmatic solution for the educated, professional, financially independent and busy Muslim American woman who sees that the selection of eligible Muslim men in her community continues to dwindle and who is not interested in converting her husband-to-be.
The above arguments for polygamy are practical ones, but I concede that the benefits of polygamy come at a degree of emotional sacrifice on the part of women. Ideally, a woman will be able to set aside her feelings of jealousy or insecurity in exchange for the love, companionship and/or financial security that a polygamous union offers her, but I realize that detractors of polygamy will argue that this description is an ideal one and the arrangement will never be emotionally healthy. Consider, however, that it is also emotionally unhealthy for a good Muslim woman to sit and wait, and wait…and wait for a man who may not be Muslim and may have no need to or interest in converting to Islam in order to marry her. For example, a woman who, for whatever reason, finds herself single and approaching middle age might feel that her biological clock is ticking urgently enough that she is willing to share the attention and companionship of a man in order to bear a child in an Islamic relationship that will guarantee the presence of a father figure for her son or daughter.
Plus, a Muslim man who can take on the responsibility for financially and emotionally caring for a second wife is at least willing to be held accountable to both wives and to society at large; after all, a polygamous marriage is certainly preferable to fornication or adultery. And let’s face it, while clichés like “men are prone to cheating” make many women squeamish, the scientific research behind this assertion is quite damning. Nearly twice as many married men as women admitted to having had sexual relations with someone other than their spouse, in the 2006 American General Social Survey. The 2000 UK National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that 15 percent of men had “overlapping” relationships in the previous year whereas only nine percent of women did. And it seems that the younger the man, the greater the tendency to cheat. According to American sociologist Eric Anderson’s book “The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating,” a whopping 78 percent of college aged men in the U.K. are unfaithful to their partners. Specific data for Muslim American men is not yet available, but considering that infidelity is equally, if not more, taboo in Muslim culture as it is in Western society, I would bet that there are plenty of clandestine extramarital affairs taking place in Muslim American communities.
“You were born and raised in the United States. What modern lifestyle choice would warrant becoming a second or third wife…or the first wife who shares? Don’t even kid about [polygamy]!” warned my Muslim journalist friend as though even a mention of the word was akin to blasphemy. I was surprised to note that before I could even share my rationale with my friends (both Muslim and non-Muslim), I had hit a nerve and ignited a friendly but fierce debate among my “Glamazon” sisters. All my friends were educated, socially active and issue-oriented Americans who originated from cosmopolitan cities and whose mothers themselves had college degrees and successful careers under their belts. Yet, my friends jumped to pull the judgment trigger when I suggested that perhaps we ought to recognize polygamy as a viable interpretation of the institution of marriage—an interpretation that, for some people, more effectively responds to the need for companionship and security. So perhaps we should not dismiss those who practice polygamy as culturally backwards or uneducated, and consider that for some it is a practical lifestyle choice.
Mehrunisa Qayyum is the Founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting and runs PITAPOLICY, a political economy blog on the MENA region. She worked at the United States’ Government Accountability Office for four years. Prior to that, she earned her MPP & Certificate in Contemporary Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in both Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Public Policy from the University of Chicago. Her analytical pieces have appeared in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aslan Media, and the Middle East Institute.