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Saturday, November 06, 2004

Inside The Harem

Inside The Harem, 13 October 2004

PROGRAMME ONE - Polygamy, the positives

"I clearly felt that what attracted him to me, was things he couldn't find with her. Not saying anything negative about her - just in general. In my opinion you can never be a perfect fit, so I didn't feel that I was marrying somebody else's husband. I think he's got the energy for ten..."

"That's 30 or 40% of the male population is at some point polygamous - in other words is having a bit on the side or he's dating two girls simultaneously. This is very common - becoming more common. It's not whether men should suddenly become polygamous or not because that's already happening."

"The Qur'an says that yes a man can marry 2 or 3 or 4 but if he cannot be equal and if he doesn't have the means then he should marry only one. So I believe that monogamy is the rule and polygamy is the exception to the rule."

S: My name is Shagufta Yaqub. Polygamy is something I'd never really thought about until one day I got a phone-call from a woman looking for a second wife for her husband. I used to edit a British Muslim magazine and the woman had phoned to say she wanted to place an advert for a co-wife. She told me how she knew her husband's taste better than anybody else and wanted to make sure he married someone she could get along with.

Although polygamy is illegal under British law, it is allowed under Islamic law, and when I got married two years ago I thought very carefully about what to include in my marriage contract. I insisted on the right to continue my education and the right to initiative a divorce, but the question of polygamy was more difficult to resolve. Should I insist that my husband will never take another wife? In the end I decided to leave the possibility open. If God has allowed polygamy, I thought who am I to challenge it? And whilst I know I could not handle such a situation myself perhaps polygamy is not as strange or uncommon as I think it is?

This very personal journey has taken me throughout the UK and also to the place of my birth, Pakistan. It started in Cambridge where I wanted to find out what role the harem had in traditional Islamic societies.

Abdul Hakim Murad who also lectures in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University explained that even the meaning of the word "harem" has been distorted over time. It's actually an Arabic word meaning "sanctuary". The great Mosque in Mecca is called Haram, meaning 'That which is set apart as being a place of holiness.'

AHM: The image of the harem that we have stereotypically in the West is dictated by a certain type of Victorian soft porn. One of the few ways in which you could get to look at pictures of young women in a Victorian art gallery was to look at classical scenes - Greek girls bathing and that was actually very unrealistic, 'cos of course those artists could never actually see those things. The reality tends to be quite strict, well regulated and monastic. Even the Ottoman Sultans who, ultimate ideal of the system, there was no way in which the Sultan could have more than one girl in his bed for instance - that was absolutely inconceivable. If you go to the Sultan's palace which is now a museum in Istanbul, you'll see little mosques everywhere, little niches where they would put pious books, prayer carpets, there would be fountains for ritual ablutions, there's religious poetry in the Qur'an written in all of the rooms. It was a kind of nunnery really. They took piety very seriously. It wasn't just one long, endless sort of soft porn party - that's certainly not what it was ever about.

Abdul Rahim: I'm 33 years old. I work as a primary teacher in Birmingham.

S: I met Abdul Rahim, not his real name, at his house in a Birmingham suburb. His voice has been disguised to protect his identity. Abdul married his first wife in 1995 in Pakistan and then met his second wife while he was at University. Initially his two wives lived in separate houses but after about six years he moved both wives and their children into the same house. I asked him if his first wife knew of his intention to marry again.

AR: Yes she did, yeah - I told her everything. I didn't hide anything from her.

S: How do you think she felt?
AR: Initially it was the same question as any woman would say 'Why me, and what's wrong with me?' It's the nature of woman that they will only want one husband and it's the nature of man that they would want more than one wife.

S: And what are your living arrangements?
AR: I live alternative nights. So I spend all night with one and the other night with the other. So - a room away.

S: And you have children as well?
AR: Of course yes, three each. The whole house is shared.

S: Do you love them equally?
AR: You can love somebody more than the other - there's nothing wrong with that in Islam - and that's natural, OK? But love is, is something else - you can love one child more than the other, yeah? But what Islam emphasises is injustice. If you can't do justice between them, just marry one. There has to be justice between both of them in terms of time, in terms of living, in terms of spending time, money - everything.

S: So under Islamic law both your wives are legal, but under British law the second one is still illegal?
AR: That is true. And there's nothing else I can do about it - I mean what can I do - get arrested for it? Lose my livelihood? What do you want me to do?

S: Surely as a Muslim you're expected to obey the law of the land as well, or do you not believe that?
AR: I definitely believe that, but anything that goes against Shar'iah or against Islam, I don't have to obey it.

S: Are your children ever teased at school that their father has two wives?
AR: I don't think the school knows - they don't like er publicise that they've got y'know two mothers - too young for them.

S: Are you quite open about the fact that you have two wives, or d'you have to keep it a secret?
AR: All my colleagues know in school. They actually take the mick out of me.

S: I've been surprised how easy it's been to find cases of polygamy being practiced in the UK. It felt quite strange to witness two women living in the same house, sharing a kitchen and bathroom as well as a husband. And yet as far as I can see, the setup seems to work. Abdul Rahim is providing for both his wives and all his children. But much as I try to come to terms with the setup, I can't imagine any woman being truly happy with her husband's second wife and seeing it as her Islamic duty not to object. Even as a religious person, I can't see how things can be as straightforward as Abdul-Rahim suggests. Certainly the fact that he asked us to change his identity suggests that he is not being 100% open with everyone and when I asked to meet his wives he claimed they did not want to speak to me.

Islam didn't invent polygamy. It is a fairly universal institution that was known in many ancient religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. So it was present in Arabia before the Qur'an was revealed. What the Qur'an did was to lay down strict guidelines that all wives have to be treated absolutely equally. Abdul Hakim Murad again.

AHM: Before Islam in Mecca a man had had the right to marry as many women as he wanted, and to divorce them at will. The new legislation actually produced a ceiling saying 'Men can marry no more than 4 women.' But the original context was effectively the same - that is to say a culture in which there was a lot of skirmishing between tribes, no social service, safety net that we have today. So that the fate of an unattached woman was often a very dreadful one and it was conceived as a kind of generous, chivalrous thing for a man to take into his household an unattached woman, particularly if she had children, she was divorced or her husband had died or she was sick. It wasn't really regarded necessarily as an indulgence but as a form of service to the community.

It's interesting to remember that the Prophet, during his teaching in Mecca, was married only to one woman, and she was some 20 years his senior. It was only after the migration to Medina and the beginning of the second half of his preaching that he married more women, and only after the first wife had died. And that seems to be part of a wider pattern of doing politics in ancient Arabia, whereby in order to avert a skirmish or a feud with another tribe or group, you actually married into that tribe or group. And it seems that every one of the Prophet's marriages in Medina actually had some kind of political or diplomatic ramification.

Batool Al-Toma: My name is Batool Al-Toma and I work here at the Islamic Foundation in Markfield in Leicester. My understanding of what Islam says about polygamy is that it can be exercised in certain circumstances. Polygamy is encouraged in certain situations where there is a problem within an existing marriage. And that problem has to be a legitimate problem really, in terms of perhaps the wife isn't able to provide children. She doesn't necessarily want to be divorced from her husband - she would like to be part of a family and so she may even actually encourage her husband to get married again and find a wife for him whom she thinks would be suitable for him, understanding and knowing his personality and also somebody that she feels personally that she could get along with. So that this particular wife then would have some children, both wives would take turns in looking after the children and the second wife to maintain a career or a profession, so it can all work out very nicely if it has all been discussed very carefully and structured very properly.

S: So polygamy, in certain circumstances, can be a solution not only for the husband but also the first wife. Still, I'm not convinced that such extreme cases are all that common - or that most polygamous marriages take place due to genuine need. And does the novelty of a polygamous marriage soon wear off, a bit like an extra-marital affair? What's it like for a second wife to meet the first? I put that question to a second wife in Birmingham - a young European Muslim convert. Helen told me about her husband Mustafa and his first wife Hadija. We've changed her name and her words are spoken by an actor to protect her identity.

H: She was very nice to me. I think I felt more uncomfortable 'cos then I did realise that I was sharing him, and I like, maybe felt a little bit guilty towards her.

S: D'you get on well at the moment?
H: Yes we do. For instance, during Ramadan, which is the Muslim month of fasting, I went there every day to break the fast. She would cook and I would do the dishes.

S: How do you think Hadija felt having been married for 17 years and then finding her husband wants to marry again?
H: He did tell her for quite some time that he was considering this, so I don't think in that sense it was completely new. Some people ask, 'Didn't she feel threatened?'. I say no - also having spoken with her and spoken with Mustafa, I think we all know that we're different enough so there's no competition. Her strong points are my weak points and vice versa.

S: How do you think your marriage with Mustafa is different from his marriage with Hadija?
H: Because we come from a different background there's so much to explore there. Whilst I think Hadija, she's the mother of his children, having 4 children obviously is a big responsibility. Things like doing most of the cooking of his meals, washing most of his clothes. And in that sense I think once you're saddled with children, you do different kinds of activities, than if you don't say have children.

S: It sounds like you have the best of both worlds because you have the husband without the responsibility?
H: I do have the best of both worlds. I have the freedom to continue my hobbies, my work in so many organisations and I have a stable, loving and caring husband. I think that's the difference between having a fixed partner, even though part-time, than if you compare it to being the 'secret sweetie' or something. In that sense I know I can call him any time, if he's not with me, but I also don't feel pressure to give up some of the activities I also like.

S: Does he treat you both equally?
H: I think he does treat us maybe not equally. Because of the number of hours or the exact same activities. But I think in his heart he does give us the same kind of attention.

S: So how do you share your husband? How many nights for example does he spend with you?
H: Practically it's normally two nights and one evening so it's not completely equal in that sense. But I think it also depends on quality of time, and indeed with Hadija he shares the time not only with her but also with the children.

S: I could never imagine my husband having a physical relationship with another woman. Does that not bother you? H: Normally I don't even think about that. I have to be honest with myself, like if I wouldn't tolerate that, either I'd have to get somebody else and that somebody else would probably not settle with just two or three evenings a week. He'd want a proper full-time relationship - and I am not willing to give that. I know he's married to another one, and I knew that before I got married. So if I'm not happy with that I shouldn't have started it.

Cassandra Balchin: We can't generalise the experience of one woman who's an earning person, who's obviously autonomous in other ways - socially autonomous - to all women. So that's very, very important that we recognise that why is there such an overwhelming movement and struggle against polygamy in so many contexts? There's not an overwhelming voice in favour of polygamy.

S: Cassandra Balchin works for Women Living under Moslem Laws in London.

C: We've got to be very careful that the isolated few cases where women are autonomous, and this is a choice that they really make without any form of pressure, that this isn't extrapolated to be something that should be available to all women, or is applicable to all women. So I don't buy the argument that actually it's, it's a better deal. It's a better deal because society sucks at the moment.

S: So according to Cassandra, polygamy - it's a societal issue. Not so, says Abdul Hakim Murad, who claims it's down to biology.

AHR: Whatever view you take of sort of orthodox neo-Darwinism, you have to recognise that it is always part of the survival strategy for ancient human communities to maximise the transmission of one's genetic material. And if a woman has many husbands, she doesn't produce any more children than she does if she chose just one husband. But if a man has a plurality of wives, then he can maximise the spread of his genetic material, and it's all very Darwinian and it actually does make sense as a strategy. And I do think that's the kind of default setting of the emotional make up of men and women, although of course there are many variations and it shouldn't really be regarded as an irrevocable norm. But I think that generally most of us are like that.

S: Are you suggesting that every man desires more than one woman?
AHR: I would be astonished if any man honestly told me that he'd never been in that situation.

S Call me a romantic, but I can't come to terms with that concept. I am sure some men are polygamous in nature, but surely not all men. If man is ruled by his biological needs, where do love, life-long commitment and loyalty fit in? Where does that leave the sanctity of marriage? Have women got it all wrong when they give their heart and soul to a man and hope to be together forever? My journey has taken me not only throughout the UK but also to the place of my birth, Pakistan, where polygamy is legal under Shar'ia law.

We're just arriving at the Qur'an Academy in Lahore, here Dr. Israr Ahmed is the founder and head of the organisation. He's been running this since 1973.

Dr A: Man is more sexual, so he needs more than one wives. Because you know in the women, the sexual process is broken by the menses and if there is a pregnancy and then delivery and so on and so forth. So what the man should do at that time? So actually this permission of marrying more than one wives is the real answer. Then you know in many conditions, for example in wars, males are killed in great numbers and the number of the women in the society becomes very great as compared to the number of the men. So what to do? Now either they should remain without any marriage, and in that case there is the danger that they might take some wrong part. They might become prostitutes or something of that sort. They have no protection, no husband, so actually in those conditions also you need that the males should have more than one wives, so that all the women in the society, they are settled and they have the protection of the family.

Cass: One of our networkers from the Gambia. She terms polygamy as 'enforced menopause', which I think is a very, very interesting phrase. What she's actually pointing to is the fact that one man cannot satisfy four women, or however many he has, to the same extent that he could satisfy only one if he was in a monogamous relationship. But in her knowledge it's very clear that polygamy basically means abandoning an older woman in favour of a younger woman, leaving that older woman in a situation of limbo, presuming that she is no longer sexual, which may not necessarily be true. She may be perfectly interested still in having sex but the presumption is somehow that you know, the man needs a nice, young, sexy thing.

S: Cassandra Balchin. So, depending on whether you're talking to a man or a woman, men are programmed to spread their genetic material and have their sexual needs met at all times - and if that means more than one wife, then so be it. I'm not entirely convinced by this argument, and certainly don't believe it applies to all men. It seems to be a very patriarchal way of looking at things, based on ideas that are perhaps not relevant in this day and age. Do all men - or even all polygamous men - think in the same way? In Pakistan men take on more than one wife for many reasons - sometimes they have a wife in the city and one in the country; sometimes it's about forging business alliances and sometimes it's a display of wealth and status.

S: It's Tuesday 8 June, it's about 7 pm. We're sitting in Mohammed Azzam's house in Lahore. Mohammed has 2 wives, 7 children and 1 grandchild. Why did you decide to marry again?

MA: When we had six children, we decided to have my wife's uterus removed. Then I thought that we should have more children. It is as simple as that. The other reason for my getting married for a second time was that I was destined to get married again. It was God's will. I have two wedding lines on my palm.

S: So why did you decide that you needed more children?
MA: I thought the bigger the family the better it would be. I have five sons. Many people want to have their daughters married to them. Some of them got angry when I refused to take their daughters as daughters-in-law. If I had ten, it would have been easier for me to appease more families.

S: How did your first wife Safiya and your children feel when you told them that you were going to marry again?

MA: For a short period they felt bad about my decision but a couple of months after my second marriage they reconciled. I sought permission from my first wife and she readily allowed me to get married again. She was sad for a couple of months after the arrival of my second wife but the tension in our relationship was gradually resolved and they started living like two sisters in complete peace and harmony.

S: And how do your children from the first wife address your second wife and vice versa?
MA: They call her Mom like they call their real mother. It is the result of the Islamic teachings which say that Heaven is under the feet of your mothers. It does not differentiate between pious mothers and less pious mothers. In this way the children respect both their mothers.

S: I was interested to speak to one of Mohammad Azzam's children. His second son Tahir is 26, and unlike children from other polygamous families Tahir was more than happy to speak to me.

S: How did you feel when your father told you that he wanted to marry again?
T: We were very young at the time. We were happy because our mother was happy.

S: Did you have any worries or concerns?
T: We didn't have any worries. We would have been worried if there had been any dispute but there were no complications so we were not worried.

S: You did not feel you might lose your Daddy?
T: Not at all.

S: And how has it been since? What's it been like growing up with another woman in the house and another sibling? T : I feel great. I wish I had three or even four instead of two only. There is a cordial atmosphere in the house and I don't think it is a bad thing.

S: Would you consider marrying again?
T: No.

S: Why not?
T: My wife is very beautiful. I am OK.

S : Would she be upset if you married again?
T : If I thought that way, she would be upset. Because everybody cannot be like my mother.

S: Do you think your father is quite unique in that he can handle this situation whereas most men cannot?
T: We have seen for ourselves that our father can take care of the rights of all his wives even if he marries six or seven times.

S: Mohammed's first wife, Safiya is now 40. She was 20 when she got married and had five sons by the time Mohammed married again.

S: How did you feel when your husband told you that he was going to marry again?
Saf: In the beginning I felt let down but later it was okay. I thought I should be grateful to the God Almighty who had blessed me with five sons.

S: When did you first meet Naseem? And how did you feel?
Saf: It was nice meeting her. I thought she was also a women like me. What is the problem here, I had thought? There were no hard feelings between us. Our children are also happy. My husband is also very fair with both of us. We live in the same house with the same kitchen and bathroom.

S: Some women would argue that no woman can truly be happy sharing her man with somebody else. What would you say to that?
Saf: I have never thought like this. For me there is no difference. I consider her his rightful wife who has the same rights and respect as mine. Even in religious terms, it is my duty to respect his will. My husband is not the only one to get married for the second time. Even our Prophet Muhammad married more than one.

S: Mohammed married his second wife Naseem 16 years ago when she was 31. I asked her if the marriage had been arranged.

N: Yes the family arranged it. When we received the marriage proposal initially there was some disagreement. My brother who was the head of the family was willing to some extent but my mother was against my getting married to Mohammad. I stepped in and told my mother I am willing to get married to Mohammad as I thought there was nothing wrong in becoming the second wife. I placed the weight of argument on Islamic history and said that even our Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, had married more than one woman. Therefore, I said, we should revive the tradition of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, and allow the second marriage to happen.

S: Did you know anybody who was a second wife? Were you familiar with this kind of thing?
N: Yes I know a couple of friends who all asked me to keep away from this situation. They argued that there were already children in the house which can complicate the situation for you. It can make things difficult for you, they said. But I told them that I was not afraid of the situation and was accepting it as my destiny. Nobody forced me to accept that proposal.

S: You said you were engaged twice before. How did the new proposal from Mohammad's family compare to the previous men that proposed to you?
N: What was different about this one was when I got the offer. I felt more comfortable with these people. His relatives who visited my house in connection with the engagement ceremony and those from his family all seemed to be very simple and straightforward people. I felt that my personality would be more valued here than any of the previous families proposing to me.

S: We're driving back now from Mohammad Azzam's house. It's 9.30 in the evening. I have to say that was one of the loveliest households I have ever been in. It was just one big, happy family. I never thought I'd say this but the two wives really do live like sisters, best friends, soulmates even. After we did the interview I sat with them separately away from the men and they were just giggling and talking about what they would cook for dinner and one was saying "oh if only it would rain I would go and dance with you on the roof". It was quite hilarious really but one thing that did come across is that they are very, very, very inspired by Islam.

Whatever it is that motivates men to take more than one wife, it's clear that some women - of their own free will - choose to live in a polygamous setup. I've been forced to re-think some of my own views and realise that not all women are the same. Just because I couldn't share my husband doesn't mean all women can't. Maybe it's time to accept polygamy as a lifestyle choice that some women happily make. It's even kind of romantic in a way - that when you've fallen for a man, you don't care whether he's already married or not.

But what about when it all goes wrong? What about men who marry again without telling their first wife? In next week's programme I'll be talking to people for whom polygamy has led to heartbreak - and more. People like Aisha - we've changed her name and her words are spoken by an actor to protect her identity.

Aisha: Even very recently people have told me how much he still cares for me, to which I would respond: if he cared for me so much, why did he do this to me?

S: How long ago was that?
A: Approximately 2 years.

S: He did it behind your back?
A Yes. And behind the back of family and friends. He did it completely secretly, and told a lot of lies to bring her into the country. He used a lot of friends to help him in this without telling them why.

S: So... you feel she has been brought into this country illegally?
A: She has been.

S: Do you think it's common?
A: I think it's very common.

S: For the purposes of polygamy?
A: Yes.

copyright 2004 BBC

Inside The Harem, 13 October 2004

PROGRAMME TWO - Polygamy, the negatives

"It's just fine and legal for me to live in a house with 50 other people and to produce children - that's not illegal - but as soon as I call it a marriage then I'm breaking the law. That seems to be a strange anachronism and I suspect that it won't last for much longer."

"A lot of people come to me and ask me that question. 'I feel like marrying twice.' I always deter them because I know the responsibility's very big. I say to them 'No'. But they always say 'Why, why? Why have you married then?' So y'know I have to explain to them 'Look, it's a very difficult thing to do. Unless you're mentally and physically ready for it, y'know - don't do it!"

S: I'm Shagufta Yaqub, a young British Muslim who got married two years ago. In Islam, unlike many other religions, marriage is a contract, not a sacrament. As I drew up my own marriage contract I pondered long and hard the verses in the Qur'an which permit a man to take up to 4 wives before finally deciding that I would leave that possibility open for my husband. Of course, I don't think it will ever happen - after all, polygamy is hardly common amongst British Muslims. Or is it? In making these programmes, I've been surprised at the number of polygamous marriages I've encountered in 21st Century Britain.

Last week I spoke to a number of polygamists for whom the setup works really well. This challenged many of the preconceptions I had, particularly after speaking to women for whom polygamy is a personal lifestyle choice. But what about those for whom it doesn't work? My journey has taken me both to different parts of the UK and to the country of my birth, Pakistan. I speak to wives whose lives are marked by fear and isolation and I explore the very precarious legal situation that second wives in this country find themselves in.

Aisha: Somebody told me to beware that my husband was spending a lot of time with a young girl. I don't know when and where they met. I don't even know whether she knew he was already married. I suspect, given the lies he told me and the lies he told his male friends, he probably also lied to her and her family, and they may well not have realised he was already married.

S: I met Aisha, not her real name, in a park in the Midlands. Her husband is a professional man of significant standing within the Muslim community. Aisha has been married to him almost 30 years. However, two years ago he married a woman in her 20s behind Aisha's back. I asked Aisha why he'd done this. Her words are spoken by an actor in order to protect her identity.

A: He'd reached a position in his life where he felt it was his turn. He'd seen a lot of friends do it and he was very much 'Why not me?'

S: Did you know he was going to?
A: No.

S: He did it behind your back?
A: Yes. And behind the back of family and friends. He did it completely secretly and told a lot of lies to bring her into the country.

S: What kind of lies?
A: He used the line that this was the daughter of a friend, who for political reasons needed to leave her country of origin.

S: So you feel she has been brought into this country illegally?
A: She has been. I know how he did it. The usual method is you have a friend who has a translation business - anything where you would need a fluent foreign language speaker. You put an advert in a local paper saying you know "job, position." You wait, there are no applicants for the job so then you find somebody abroad who will come to Britain and do the job and then you obtain them a work visa. And that's how it's done. It's very easy to do apparently.

S: So it's quite common in his circle?
A: It's not common but he certainly knew a lot of people who had done it. I certainly know two men who have had approximately ten wives each because as soon as they get to finding a fourth wife they have to divorce one of the others; otherwise they have to stop looking. And it's the looking which is fun. I met two of the wives, one of them you could say he'd maybe married her for good, sound reasons. She wasn't particularly attractive, she was either second or third wife - he eventually divorced her. And many years later I came across a girl who'd recently married him and been divorced and she was only 18. At least three of the women that these men have married have been British.

S: So this is obviously illegal. Has this never been exposed?
A: It's something that Muslims don't want to talk about. It's very difficult for a woman to go to any people in authority. As Muslims we're told to keep secrets. I think if the men believed their wives would make this public they wouldn't do it, so sort of by definition they believe that the women will not talk.

S: Aisha's is the kind of story I expected to find in traditional Muslim countries, but certainly not the UK. A powerful man using his status to flout the legal system and bring in a second wife - a younger model at that. How can he possibly get away with it? Surely there must be some system of accountability within the community? How can the community accept a marriage based on lies, injustice and an abuse of the law?

Batool Al-Toma: Many of those men who wish to get married again start beginning to establish that there is a problem within the marriage.

S: Batool Al-Toma works with Muslim converts at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester.

B: So that when this particular polygamous situation is entered into, people within the community will say 'Ah yes but y'know there was a problem there, y'know, you must realise that it's not actually his fault really.' I personally have very little respect and probably I would say actually no respect for people who flaunt these laws of this country. I feel that as Muslims here in the UK we're very fortunate in the way that the UK legal system has actually accommodated Muslims in so many different ways. I also disrespect them in the sense that many of these people are quite prominent members within the Muslim community.

S: Not only was I surprised to find that it's perfectly legal for Muslims in this country to marry polygamously, as long as it's an Islamic marriage and not a marriage under British civil law, but I was also shocked that the immigration system is being abused by certain members of the Muslim community. This discrepancy leaves the second wife completely unprotected because she is not legally recognised as married.

Abdul Hakim Murad is the Imam at Cambridge Mosque as well as Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. I asked him about the immigration issue and how he ensures that the weddings he conducts do not result in an abuse of the law.

AHM: When I celebrate a wedding in this room I do try and make sure that I know the circumstances. Recently we had a bride from Timbuktu and a husband from Detroit, and it seemed like a very sudden decision that they'd made. So I took it upon myself to try and get on the phone to the bride's father in his little village in Timbuktu just to make sure that everything was as it seemed. What I can't do, as somebody who looks after a Mosque, is do something about the underlying problem of immigration, which is about extreme wealth in some countries and extreme poverty in others.

S: So if a Muslim man came to you and you knew he was already married, would you marry him again, obviously Islamically and not according to the British legal system?
AHM: Well, I'd have to look very carefully into the circumstances. I don't think that our Mosque has ever celebrated a polygamous marriage. But in principle if the two existing partners were very happy with it, very keen on it and the third party was clearly going to be looked after correctly, and we had all of the traditional rules in place in terms of separate, equal accommodation and the rest, then there would be no earthly reason for us to refuse it.

S: My fear is that if polygamy was made legal in the UK, men would see it as a green light to go ahead and take as many wives as they pleased. The examples I have come across of British law being flouted disturbed me so I took my concerns to the Government. The Home Office declined to give us an interview but instead issued the following statement:

"Bigamy is a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. This legislation covers all marriages which take place in England, Wales or Northern Ireland or by United Kingdom citizens abroad. Moreover, even if a couple has the legal capacity to enter into a polygamous marriage overseas and the marriage is valid in the country where it is celebrated, the Immigration Act 1988 prevents a person from bringing more than one spouse to settle with him or her in the United Kingdom. The Government is building on action we have already taken as part of our ongoing review to protect the integrity of our migration routes. For example, tackling marriage abuse, tightening up low- skilled employment schemes and introducing new restrictions on switching immigration categories".

S: Surprisingly perhaps, second wives in Pakistan have more protection. In 1961 Pakistani law was changed so that a man was not allowed to marry for a second time without first gaining the permission of the local Union Council, who in turn had to be satisfied that the second marriage was for genuine reasons.

Justice Nassira Iqbal is a retired judge as well as an Islamic scholar and daughter-in- law of Pakistan's most famous philosopher and poet - the late Muhammad Iqbal - the man credited with the intellectual impetus behind the creation of Pakistan. She told me about the uproar which ensued when Pakistani law was amended.

NI: I remember that the first time that this law came about, which imposed a penalty on a man getting a second wife, the Prime Minister of Pakistan took a second wife. The women took out a procession that 'He cannot do so, we do not allow polygamy. The law particularly penalises polygamy and therefore whatever he has done is absolutely illegal.' Which meant actually that he would divorce his first wife. His first wife - this was... now in 1963, she came out of her home and she begged the women. She said 'Look, I don't want this kind of protection that polygamy should be banned altogether. He has chosen to live with this woman. He has married her, he will not divorce her. If he has to have a monogamous marriage, he will divorce me. Where am I going to go? What's going to happen to my children? They will be growing up in a broken home. I would rather share my husband with this woman and let him legalise the situation as he has, rather that he lives out of marriage with another woman, or he divorces me'.

S: I met a couple in Lahore for whom polygamy is part of the problem as well as the solution. From the moment they got married, their lives became a living nightmare. Jameel and Nusrat, not their real names, are living their life on the run. Jameel was already married to Fauzia but they did not get on and he subsequently met Nusrat through work. They are now married and have a three-month old baby. As a result Jameel has been disinherited and prevented from seeing his children, even though he sends money to support them.

S: When you started your relationship with Nusrat, was she aware that you were already married?
J: Yes she knew that I was already married. I didn't tell her about my first marriage for a couple of months. But when I realized our relationship was getting serious I thought I should tell her the truth.

S: How did she react to the news?
J: She was shocked. I thought that our relationship had ended but then she contacted me again. She accepted my first marriage and said that she was ready to marry me even if she had to live with Fauzia in the same house.

S: So Nusrat's family are not in touch with you or Nusrat?
J: They are in touch with Nusrat but not with me. I'm scared they might want to kill me. Everybody want to kill me. I fear for the life of my second wife and my newly-born baby. I used to live away from my office but now I have rented a house close to my office so that I can come and see my wife and baby after every two hours or so. When my children from the first wife visited my house, they conveyed threats from their mother to Nusrat. They even told me that my father wanted to get me and my second wife killed and that they had provided pictures to some hired assassins for this purpose.

S: Would you like to live together with all your children?
J: Yes of course. In fact I have told them whenever they want they can come and stay with me. My parents don't allow them to meet me but they somehow manage to meet me or at least call me whenever they find an opportunity. I have told them that they shouldn't think I have contracted a second marriage and left them alone. I have told them that I was still their father and would love them even if I married ten times.

S: So you are living now in a poor region in Lahore with Nusrat and Omar. What is life like for you now compared to in your previous marriage?
J: Previously I had a good life. I had never lived in a poor locality throughout my life prior to my second marriage. I was born in a posh locality of Lahore. My father was a Government Officer. The same is the case with Nusrat, who also belonged to a well-to-do family. We don't want to live here but our circumstances are forcing us to do so.

Nusrat: He had told me about his first marriage quite early on within 3 or 4 months. Initially I was not under any pressure to get married. But the situation changed when my elder sisters got married and different families started proposing me for their sons. It created a difficult situation for me. All the formal inquiries about Jameel's character and his family background were found satisfactory by my family. On the basis of these investigations my family approved him as a son-in-law and the date was fixed for the wedding. Then all of a sudden some journalist told my brother that Jameel was married and had two children from his first wife.

S: So you both took a huge risk in lying to your families and hoping that they would never find out about his other wife. Where did you get the courage to go ahead and pursue your love despite all the obstacles?
N: In my experience when someone loves you, you get a power within you. In that situation you are capable of doing anything without any care for the results. My marriage with Jameel is just like jumping into the rising river of fire. It involved leaving the social status and resources which were at my disposal at my parents' house and living under a constant fear of death.

S: We spent the evening with Jameel and Nusrat. It was a really, really intensely emotional experience particularly listening to Jameel. He is full of pain really - he was sweating, his hands were shaking, he was crying at times, particularly remembering his mother who actually died of shock having heard that he'd remarried, which was quite a burden for anyone to carry.

Jameel told me he would have been trapped if polygamy had not been an option. Having decided not to divorce his first wife - which he felt would be an injustice both to her and the children - he would have remained technically married but unable to have a normal relationship. There are no official statistics regarding the number of polygamous marriages in Pakistan although it's put at less than 5%. Out of these it's impossible to tell how many are genuine, happy marriages - such as that of Mohammad Azzam and his two wives who we heard from last week. I suspect in more cases than not, women choose to remain married because their options are limited. To put it bluntly, they would rather half a husband, than none at all.

Farida Shaheed: People who work at Shirkat Gah for instance, when they came across women who said no they're part of a polygamous marriage - happily so etc, etc, it took the team not very long to say 'But y'know if I were in your situation, I wouldn't be happy, to which then they started opening up and saying 'Actually we're not really happy with this. But this is the circumstances - what d'you want us to, to do about it?'

S: Farida Shaheed is the Co-ordinator of the Women, Law and Status programme at Shirkat Gah, a Human Rights Group in Lahore. She believes that Pakistani law does not do enough to protect women against polygamy. She also feels that if women were more aware of their rights within existing laws, they would be more empowered to challenge their husbands when they bring in another wife.

FS: Our main work is to tell people about family laws - to tell them how to access the courts. In conservative areas like Frontier, we have conducted legal awareness sessions on Women's Rights for men first and at the end of the day the men said 'Come back tomorrow and run the sessions for the women'. Two of the men brought their wives to the Shirkat Gah office in Peshawar. We arranged for a legal training then for the women, and I think for the first time in their lives, and as I keep saying I hope not for the last time, the men actually cooked for the women. They took care of everything in order that the women could attend the full day session of legal awareness of women's rights in the family. Now to me this is something that indicates there is a huge potential for change.

S: In many Muslim countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Nigeria the law has been changed to afford further protection to second and subsequent wives. Tunisia has outlawed polygamy completely on the basis that no man can treat his wives equally. Even in conservative Egypt recent proposals have been put forward which aim to criminalise polygamy. Having spoken to some very happy first and second wives, I don't entirely agree that there is no such thing as consensual polygamy. Surely there is a difference between using polygamy as a practical solution and using it as a licence to commit injustices?

Cassandra Balchin works for Women Living Under Moslem Laws in London which ran an international research programme for over 10 years on Women and Law in the Muslim World.

Cass: We did take a position there that there may be instances where women apparently choose a polygamous situation, but that we felt that, that in fact reflects certain inequalities in society. There's a resurgence for example of polygamy in Uzbekistan. And that reflects the problem that women who are highly educated or who don't get married as soon as they're 20 are regarded as unmarriageable. And therefore for them polygamy is the only option. Now if you say that somebody in that context 'chooses' polygamy, what's the nature of that choice? It's reflecting a society which doesn't value educated, intelligent, older women. So I'm saying that is choice really choice?

S: I agree with Cassandra Balchin that social inequality means a woman might decide to stay with a polygamous husband even though she is unhappy, but surely taking away that right - that concession that makes life easier for her - is not the answer?

Aisha, not her real name, has chosen to remain married to her husband despite the fact that he kept his second marriage secret. She is reluctant to throw away 30 years of marriage because of what she feels is her husband's 'mistake.' Aisha took her case to the Muslim community but found that no-one was willing to help her. I asked her why. Her words are spoken by an actor.

A: Because every case that I know of, they have got away with it - it's never become public knowledge to the point that they are ostracised from the community. They cannot stand on the Mosque Committee, they cannot lead the prayer. Until that time when the Muslim men say 'This is unacceptable - you will not fulfil any higher function in Muslim society because of what you have done', it will continue.

S: You said you've approached different members of the community. Has their reaction to you changed in any way?
A: I was previously the wife of my husband. I'm now an independent being in their eyes. They seem to think I'm not worth visiting. I have had only one Muslim visitor in the time that my husband and I have been separated.

S: So you've become ostracised?
A: I have, yes.

S: How d'you feel about that?
A: I think it's very unfair because I haven't done anything wrong. If I was to have lost my husband through a bereavement, I cannot imagine that people would have ostracised me in this way. And I have to say losing one's husband in this way is much, much more emotionally draining and upsetting than if he'd simply passed away.

S: So they blame you in a sense?
A: I think there is a feeling there's no smoke without fire. But I can assure you that there was no fire because I didn't do anything, anything, to deserve what has happened to me.

S: Mufti Abdul Kadir Barkatullah is one of the family panel judges for the UK Islamic Shar'iah Council, as well as Senior Imam at London's Finchley Mosque. He has between 10 and 15 cases of polygamy referred to him each month.

Mufti Barkatullah believes that a legally binding marriage contract is essential for the protection of women. Before I got married I was advised by an Islamic scholar to ensure that I stated my right to divorce. For Muslim women living in the West, he said, this is absolutely essential. He even told me I could add almost anything into the marriage contract that didn't directly contradict the Shar'iah - like for example, demanding wages for housework! This was a revolutionary concept for me, but a right that Islam gave women 1400 years ago. Now, in 21st century Britain, Mufti Barkatulla has drawn up a standard marriage contract which would synchronise British and Islamic law and so outlaw polygamy. So far it has not been well received by the Mosques.

MB: I want to make it like, any standard tenancy agreement . So they can go and buy from them and say to the Imam, 'Look I want to get married on this contract'. If you want to conduct the marriage this is the contract we are going to sign and this will enforce - of course it's a user-driven or consumer-driven demand, rather than imposed from the Mosques.

S: In doing this programme I've learnt that far from the Orientalist's over-romanticised fantasy of the harem, the reality of polygamy is quite mundane. More often than not, it can involve heartache, revenge and custody battles. What's upset me the most in all the stories I've heard is the attitude of some men who take multiple wives for their own selfish needs, simply because they can. It's an argument that I've heard often - "it's allowed in the Shar'iah so no-one can stop me." This literalist incorporation of Islamic legalities into the complexities of everyday life worries me. An Islamic scholar once explained to me that the Shar'iah is only there as a guide to tell us what the ruling would be in an Islamic court of law. It's not there to define the subtleties of human interaction. For that we have the example of the Prophet who in his last sermon went out of his way to say "treat your women folk kindly".

I know myself enough to say, fairly confidently, that polygamy is not something I would personally be able to tolerate or even consider. I still believe my husband has the right, in principle, to take another wife. I wouldn't want to take that right away from him because I know he would never knowingly mistreat me. Marriage, I believe, is built on trust and that's why I found Aisha's story so upsetting. She now stands at a crossroads and it seemed appropriate to let her have the last word.

A: I would like things to be settled outside the British legal system because I feel the Islamic injustices were greater than the secular injustices. I am more concerned with my husband's fate in the hereafter than myself and my children's future in this life. I could seek a divorce - I could make this very public. I think it's very important that the oppression suffered by many Muslim women - even if their husbands don't go through with this - is rectified so that they know that if this does happen to them there is a sound legal basis in which to move forward.

S: You said one of the reasons you haven't asked for a divorce is that you want your husband to be able to face God on the day of judgement. What do you mean by this?
A: To me, the biggest injustice is that he gave his second wife things that he always denied me, and I wish to give him the chance to make reparation. And that cannot happen after we are divorced and that's my main reason for not taking the legal steps until now because I sincerely believe in the hereafter and I fear the hereafter. I am fearful of the Day of Judgement. For all the injustices he has done me, I don't wish him to burn in Hell.

S: So you feel your husband has wronged you in this life, yet you're still concerned about his fate in the next?
A: Yes. Perhaps because for all his sins of omission and commission I still care for him. He was my husband for a very, very, very long time, and he still remains my husband.

copyright 2004 BBC


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