Mormons, Muslims and abusive polygamy

The Guardian yesterday carried a major feature on the fundamentalist Mormon polygamists who dominate two small towns in the Utah/Arizona border area: Husband and Wives gives the whole historical background, the details of the prosecution of Warren Jeffs, his abusive, cult-like control-freakery, the families split up and people kicked out for no reason, and so on, while The Life of a ‘Sisterwife’ is collated from this discussion thread on a discussion board called “Sisterwives”. Readers might read this and decide for themselves whether this is genuine or a hoax. The bit about sleeping in a bunk bed being better than having one big bed for all of them because they can look down and see hubby and the “on” wife having sex makes me suspect the latter.

I’m sure many Muslims, like me, read this and felt a bit self-satisfied that at least we Muslims don’t behave like this. When we practise polygamy, or polygyny as some Muslim writers insist on calling it, we stick to four (or much more commonly two), we don’t treat it as some sort of central tenet of our faith, we don’t sleep with one wife in front of the other and we don’t marry a wife and then marry her sister. Still, an incident I’ve come across recently made me wonder how self-satisfied any of us can be in this regard.

A few years ago, I spoke with a Muslim lady from east Africa over a period of several months with a view to marrying her, before finally deciding that she was not suitable; we ended up losing contact after her family moved house. Then, about a month ago, the sister popped up on the internet and told me she had just got married. The brother was a half-English, half-Carribean convert and (surprisingly) was a “salafi”, something I did not think would attract her. For him, she had lost weight, given up her job and started wearing the niqab.

A couple of weeks after that, she turns up again and tells me that she has just discovered that her new husband in fact has another wife, something he never bothered to tell her, presumably because he knew full well that most women do not want to enter into plural marriages. She was, of course, devastated and angry, and told me that she had no intention of ever moving in with him now; she planned to demand a divorce (though from what she told me, it sounds as if the marriage was invalid anyway).

This is not the first time I’ve known of a sister who had been treated in such a callous and cynical way by a “brother”. Around 2001 I was introduced, by a woman who was then running a match-making service for Muslims, to a Kenyan family in east London who had a daughter in her late teens who wanted, or whom they wanted, to get married. I visited the family more than once and they were a lovely family, but the daughter turned out to be unwilling to marry anyone right then because of what had happened to her elder sister. She had married a “salafi” convert who had promised to allow her to continue her studies after they married, but who reneged on his promise afterwards. (I have also been told of sisters in a certain tariqa group marrying men outside the group who promised to let her attend the group’s gatherings in the Midlands, and then “changed their minds after marriage”.)

Why does anyone do such a thing? I can’t understand why a “pious brother” would treat a sister in such a fashion other than a cynical knowledge of his rights (as everyone knows their rights these days, don’t they?) gleaned from reading a few textbooks, and the knowledge that she trusts him and that his promises are not Islamically legally binding. This, of course, makes it all the more important for sisters to know what rights they can insist upon before marriage and how they can be enforced (usually this means through a divorce clause). Women should be aware that there are some men out there who think pious women are doormats and that Islam requires them to be this way and gives men the right to walk all over them. (Whatever the books say, a lot of sisters will never again give you the time of day if you treat them like this even if they wear niqab and however much they pray.)

As for polygamy, almost none of the sisters I’ve ever spoken to about marriage were willing to share their husbands with anyone else. It is permitted in Islam and I don’t support any attempt to ban it or to claim that Islam does not allow it, but brothers should know how unpopular it is among the ladies and respect this. Nobody will respect you if you get yourself a woman on false pretences. (Do that with money or other property, and you may well get thrown in jail.)

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