Polygamy, “evolution” and mistreatment of women

The last week or so I’ve seen two articles about Muslim men who don’t respect women, one of them on Achelois’ blog, the other by Mariella Frostrup in last Sunday’s Observer, which Fareena Alam linked on Facebook. The first used a couple of ugly incidents involving men in polygamous marriages in a Gulf state and attacked polygamy itself on the basis of it; the second is about a woman who supposedly converted to Islam, fell in love with a married man (with a young Yemeni wife) who for some reason wrote to this woman for advice. Somehow I don’t quite believe that aspect of it, but let’s examine both stories.

I’ll do the Frostrup one first. This is a British woman who met a Yemeni Muslim man who’s 29; his wife is 23, he married her when he was 15, and they have four children. Yet, this man doesn’t love his wife and they no longer have sex, because she’s smelled her perfume and knows he’s cheating on her. He can’t get rid of her because she’s his cousin and the mother of his children, and because his father would chuck him out and leave him without a place in the family business, and penniless.

Frostrup tells her that this man has already had “sexual relations with a child” which is illegal in this country regardless of whether it’s their culture or not. Well, if the relations took place outside the country, such as in Yemen, the law of this country does not matter. She was only a year younger than the age of consent in the UK anyway, and it’s lower in much of Europe, never mind Yemen. She also assumes that her correspondent converted to Islam only for the sake of her lover, giving her a lecture on how their behaviour makes bad Muslims of both of them:

In Yemen, women are stoned to death for such “licentious” behaviour, so thank your lucky stars your “crime” is being committed over here. I’m certainly not condoning such Stone Age punishment but trying to make you understand the enormity of your actions.

Unfortunately, I can’t get access to the Facebook debate which started when Fareena shared it, because my account is suspended due to an upgrade, but despite someone saying that it was traumatising to see that it was a non-Muslim woman talking sense to a Muslim one, I’m not wholly convinced that the story is genuine. It is too much one of those daytime TV programmes in which stupid people try to get stupid problems resolved by a TV presenter. All too often it’s a woman who has some piece of dead wood she, for some inexplicable reason, can’t seem to dump. This woman, religious or not, is a married man’s bit on the side. Islam has nothing to do with it other than that he is Muslim and that she has converted (if either of them exist), probably in the hope that he will take her on.

However, one thing Frostrup didn’t see fit to point out is that, if this man’s wife really has had four children in eight years, then she probably has her hands full and is unlikely to be the same girl she was when he married her in her early teens. The couple are still young and it is unlikely that he would have married someone he had absolutely no feelings for or attraction to. It is just wrong for a second woman to interfere in a vulnerable, but still viable, marriage in this way.

Onto Achelois’s post. This was flagged up by a tweet from Organica last Friday and I replied that polygamy was part of the Sunnah and that you couldn’t blame it for the fact that some polygamists were bad. I’ve personally seen Muslim men in monogamous marriages in the west who treat their wives with as much contempt as described in that post. Some are cynical, making promises to their wives before marriage knowing that, legally, they cannot be held to them. I’ve told the story before of how I was approached by a Kenyan family in east London whose daughter supposedly wanted to get married, but decided otherwise because her elder sister, who had married a “salafi” white convert, was told she could continue at college before marriage but was expected to drop out afterwards. The woman suggested to me did not trust that I would allow her to continue her studies, whatever I promised. I’ve also heard of sisters who were members of a Sufi tariqa being told by their non-tariqa fiancés that they could attend the big national gatherings, but their husbands “changed their minds” later.

Achelois’s post consists of a number of stories of polygamist husbands in some unnamed Gulf country treating their wives and daughters badly, among them one who refused to let his daughter go to college because he wouldn’t let anyone but himself drive her there, and he was out of town visiting his other wife. Another was a wife who was accused of adultery and divorced because she bore a child when the husband believed he had a “low sperm count” due to a medical condition, so the baby could not be his.

Neither of these stories need be directly related to polygamy, of course. The first husband could have done the same when he was away on business. The actions of the second, however, are clearly very much contrary to Islamic law as a husband is only allowed to accuse his wife of adultery if he actually catches her doing it, or if she bears a child when he has not had sex with her or he knows for sure that he is infertile, such as having lost his testicles years ago and functioning on HRT since. “Low sperm count” does not mean certain infertility; it just meant he was unlikely to have children. This is even true if a white couple have a dark-skinned baby, as testified to in a hadeeth; this could be caused by there being black ancestry in the family, much as happens when a light-coloured camel bears a dark-haired foal. This is, of course, very likely in Arabia which is right next to Africa and a lot of people are mixed-race, but it has even happened among white Afrikaners in South Africa.

Achelois has made her distaste for polygamy known in the past, based on matters of her family history, but polygamy does not in itself mean that a man will be a pig to his wife; it just means that a pig has two, three or four wives to oppress rather than just one. Monogamy is not a new thing in the west. Achelois calls polygamy a “pre-evolution” relic, “an archaic practice from when societies and human beings didn’t know and hadn’t learnt the value of human life and feelings”. The fact is that monogamy was the enforced norm in the west long before feminism or other modern ideas like representative democracy or the rule of law had been heard of. Marriages were notoriously difficult to get out of in most western countries until quite recently; some countries, particularly in the Latin-speaking Catholic world, still prohibit divorce. Churches told women who were in abusive marriages that marriage was for life — for better or worse, richer or poorer, etc.

Evolution is a modern, western concept and “evolved” always seems to mean being more like middle-class urban white westerners. Does anyone really suppose that there aren’t a fair number of such people carrying on relationships on the side, or maintaining multiple relationsihps without marrying any of them? There are entire social movements these days which embrace “polyamory”, meaning multiple relationships, with or without marriage, for both men and women. (Why does Islam permit polygyny but not multiple husbands? One good reason is that a child has a right to know who his or her father is, which would not be possible if a woman had two or more husbands, particularly if they were the same colour.) I do not doubt that there are men who abuse polygamy, but these sorts would abuse single wives or even other people generally, and there are sometimes very good reasons for having it (such as after a war), and some women for whom sharing a husband means more time to themselves. I have always said that Muslim men should recognise that most women do not like it and respect that, but we cannot blame it for men not treating their wives decently. It is just a separate issue.

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