- Dr Haider Shah
- February 22, 2014
I am writing these lines to critically evaluate an opinion piece published in the same newspaper under the title ‘Polygamy in Pakistan’ (Daily Times, February 15, 2014) in which the worthy writer Hilde Jacobs provided justification for the practice of polygamy. The key argument of the article presupposes that man is responsible for economic activity while the woman looks after the physical and sexual needs of her male possessor called husband. This concept is not without merit in a tribal society where men perform the labour intensive activities of trade and warfare while women ensure continuity of the tribe by becoming offspring producing machines and keeping males physically comfortable and sexually satisfied. In ancient societies, besides polygamy, the institution of slavery was also widely entrenched. No doubt, we do find passing references to treating slaves well but the fact remains that all through Arab history, male prisoners of wars were traded for their physical strength while female prisoners were valued for their ‘sexual prowess’. We have to be careful when we inherit historical baggage from ancient societies.
Yes, if two to four wives are kept happy, what is the fuss about? No doubt, there were understandable reasons for this arrangement in societies where constant warfare had necessitated their social acceptability. This social scheme however can function satisfactorily as long as women do not acquire education and are kept isolated from the external world. Triggering the process of self-actualisation, education inculcates the faculty of making choices in an individual. Those who go to schools and colleges develop the capacity to dream and aspire. Education ushers in the empowering urge of leading a fuller life as an individual. The polygamy scheme is an efficient economic solution based on division of primary roles in a rudimentary tribal society but its continued working depends on the voluntary compliance of women to their male possessors who, like cows and sheep, treat them well. The whole system breaks down once the bull of education is allowed to enter this china shop.
Hilde argues that it is better to have polygamy than to have extra-marital relations. Perhaps we are confusing moral principles with laws that can be enforced in a court of law. Marriage is a ritual invented by human society to formalise the need of procreation. Like all other species, humans also have to adopt ways and means of recreating their offspring to ensure the survival of the species. The ritual is dependent on social consensus, which in turn depends on factors like climate, geography, beliefs and underlying economic structure. Just as these factors change so does the consensus and consequently the rituals also change. For instance ‘sati’ was once practiced in ancient India but is against the law today. Child marriage was never an issue in our cultural heritage but today we have specific laws against this practice. Cultures evolve over time and so do laws that govern our conduct. Yesterday, in many cultures even siblings could marry but today, save in Muslim communities, even cousin marriages are considered inappropriate. We cannot be judgmental about these social norms as they reflect the social consensus of the times in which those societies live. Neither should we condemn norms of ancient times nor should we forcibly apply them to modern times.
The author refers to some German families where polygamy is practiced. Generalising from such anecdotal evidence is a very risky business. If Germany as a whole develops consensus over the usefulness of polygamy, a political party will not waste a minute in making it a political issue in a continent where elections are even contested on the fox hunting issue. Laws reflect the social consensus of a society upon rights and duties. The fact is that even a single leaked story of infidelity often proves to be a fatal blow to the political careers of prominent leaders. People of course differ in their choices about relationships. For instance, on Valentine’s Day a week ago, the mother of my wife’s colleague received a present on February 14 from her husband who had died on February 11. As the husband was a cancer patient who knew that his days were numbered he had ordered the gift for his wife a month before. Many men choose to cheat or be cruel to their spouses but many can be loving life partners as well. The social consensus of today is built upon this notion of living together as equal partners. Women do not want to be in a marriage relationship where they are seen as the possessions of husbands. Polygamy, like slavery, is therefore not tenable in the modern world. Faith better not be used when it comes to debating human rights issues.
True, many religions in the past allowed polygamy. No doubt, religions played an important part in promoting globalisation in the early part of human civilisation but we also find that these religions were almost unanimous in building and preaching an earth-centric cosmology. We should be equally grateful to the magnificent doubters like Galileo and Ibne Rushd who rescued knowledge from the clutches of those who posed as interpreters of the laws of God while not having any clue about how blood circulates in our body, how disease is caused by germs and how heavenly bodies are related to each other. Using faith to achieve personal contentment is a respected right of every faithful but we have to think twice before we extend its usage to the definition and exercise of our legal rights.
Polygamy in Pakistan
- Hilde Jacobs
- February 15, 2014
The interpretation of the sacred Quran varies quite significantly within the Muslim community. If you, for example, look at the surah regarding polygamy in Islam, you will find this: “And if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with the oppressed women, then marry from among them two or three or four, but if you fear you wont be just [even then], then marry only one” (Quran 4:3). What does this mean in reality?
I think the answer can be found in the writings of the chairwoman of the Theosophical Movement in the UK, Dr Annie Besant, who declares in her book The Life and Teachings of Muhammad, that pretended monogamy in the west is like polygamy without responsibility because the mistress is cast off when the man is weary of her. I fully agree to her pointing out that monogamy with a blended mass of prostitution is hypocrisy and more degrading than a limited polygamy.
Women living in monogamy are not protected fully because men often enjoy extramarital affairs without obligatory economic consequences, and thus he can ‘play around’ without taking responsibility for his sexual conduct. Birth control and the ease of abortion have opened sex for fun to western women but she is still the one who suffers the trauma of abortion and the side effects of birth control methods, often left alone by the man with whom she has had intimate relations. If the man has numerous mistresses and illegitimate children, his relationship is left unpunished in many countries. Polygamy, on the other hand, means protection for women united to one man, with a legitimate child in her arms and surrounded with respect, contrary to being seduced and then cast out into the streets perhaps with illegitimate children outside the rule of law.
Howsoever you, dear reader, adhere to monoggamy, the truth is, that, historically, polygamy was permissible in all religions as described clearly in the History of Polygamy. I personally never knew but came to know now – for the first time – about the history of polygamy. I wonder why this ancient habit has been totally banned in all religions except in Islam, as far as I know. Surely, it is based on the fact that historical customs are bound to change in the course of centuries, a natural development, going hand in hand with equal opportunities for women.
However, reflecting the sense of surah An-Nisa 4 in the Quran, permitting the male to marry more than one female, I cannot find any kind of discrimination against women. Originally, a Muslim husband is meant to be allowed to care for orphans who have lost their husbands, sons, fathers or brothers in battle and consequently to marry up to three more females. If husbands are able to care for them rather equally – financially as well as emotionally – and the first wife does agree to the second wife, then why do some people make such a fuss about it? Why are they ridiculing and abusing the lucky man blessed with two or more spouses?
Since nowadays there is no continuum of battles like in ancient times, the tradition of polygamy has become less valuable but there are still reasonable arguments for some men to marry two (very seldom more than two) women. Muslim Family Law section six has laid down “that no married man contract a second marriage without the permission of Arbitration Council, which shall ensure that the man had good grounds for second marriage and had obtained his first wife’s permission to do so.” So, why are those lucky men, and more so the second wives, still hated and unappreciated by the first wives in various cases?
It should be considered by deeply religious Muslim women, who are observing the rules of Islam, that Prophet Mohammad (may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him) gave the world the ideal example of a chaste life up to the age of 25, then a monogamous life with a noble widow and a polygamous life after the age of 50. He married the young and the old, the widow and the divorcee, the pleasant and the emotional, the daughters of tribal chiefs and freed slaves. He was an example of perfection in all the diversity life had to offer. So it should be beyond all question for Muslim women to follow the Prophet (PBUH) in adoration and veracity, ignoring all sorts of jealousy, envy and grudges. What I consider as an affront is the bad habit of some first wives to renounce the prior permission to the husband’s second marriage and, what is worse, to threaten the husband with divorce, knowing very well that in all probability the custody for their joint children will be awarded to the wife. Their intention to punish the husband in this gruesome way will only lead to more desperation at all levels.
Perhaps it is not known in Pakistan yet that even in Germany nowadays there are males who live with more than one female. They do not have to get married to all of them (which is not allowed here), but care for each of them equally and give all of them an equal footing. It works. In some cases, it also works with females loving more than one male. If true love between humans, as many as you like, is unconditional and not possessive then the development of mankind is growing by leaps and bounds.