Some women are happy to be 'co-wives', and plenty of men have affairs. So is polygamy the aberration we usually take it to be?
Having just turned 27 I am that age when aunts and grandmothers tut in exasperation and shudder in ignominy as I appear, unashamedly and impudently single while younger cousins and colleagues pair up and reproduce. As the pool of potential husbands grows rapidly shallower, some of my fellow single friends and relatives have (horrifyingly to me) contemplated and entered into marriages as second wives. The four wife permission in Islam
, has always been one of the more difficult rulings for me to reconcile with and I was historically unflinchingly critical of any female who willingly entered into such an arrangement. It had always struck me that it would only ever be a compromise, a realistic option for those women cruelly and spuriously regarded as socially deficient in looks, youth, honour or wealth, those who preferred the option over the seedy status of mistress or the barren wasteland of spinsterhood.
Both my Sudanese grandfathers took four wives, and although it was rather surreal growing up with eight grandmothers (and literally tens of aunts and uncles) the relationship of the co-wives was by and large touchingly amicable as they raised each other's children and supported one another through the adversities of a demanding marriage and rural hardship. If anything, the fact that their husband had his full allocation of four was an indication of the prosperity of their home and prominence of their spouse. In my parents' generation however, polygamy came to be frowned upon, shunned as a relic of times gone by, almost a blemish on a man's urbane cosmopolitanism. While their parents were uneducated country dwellers, these men and women were university educated, had travelled outside of the Arab world and the prospect of taking a second wife would have been fiercely resisted by first wives and seen by other men as merely the lusting of a backward Neanderthal.
The thought of sharing my partner with other women is unfathomable, against visceral instinct, as I recently tried to explain to a friend days before she became a second wife, a de-personalisation and desecration of the most private bond. Her assertion that her love for her future husband pervaded his married status was maddeningly counterintuitive. Surely, that makes the situation more untenable? It gives the line "I bet you say that to all the girls", an entirely new meaning. Even the caveat in the Qur'an permitting four wives only on the condition that the man be just with each of them is little consolation; being a co-wife would only be palatable if he were unjust in my favour, because only then would the marriage have any exclusivity.
The practise of polygamy across the world is ubiquitous. In the Arab world, it is generally more prominent in the less secular Gulf (and banned in secular Tunisia) where the monarchs of both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have more than one wife. The Sudanese president took as a second wife the widow of one of his ministers and proceeded to try and revive the lapsed culture
of polygamy in the country. Compared to non-Islamic plural marriage practices, Islam was positively frugal with its allowance of four. Jacob Zuma
has three wives and three fiancees and in Nigeria, the Anglican leader recently expressed frustration
at the reluctance of Christian converts to "give up their extra wives" in a society where not only is the practice of polygamy commonplace but subject to its own established patterns where younger wives are recruited into the households as older ones become more established in their roles as matriarchs.
More recently, the spotlight has been drawn to religious sects
in the US, which are the epitome of polygamy as an adjunct to a cult-like anachronistic lifestyle where women are subjugated by tyrannical husbands. This has in turn prompted other "plural wives" who did not belong to sects nor entered into a polygamous marriage involuntarily to launch a media campaign
declaring that to most it was a choice, one that facilitated a warm hearth populated with many children and fellow wives running the households under the benign provision of husbands, who not only had mainstream jobs but also were wealthy, educated and not in the least religious (revelations which prompted Oprah to experience a paradigm shift, or as she put it a "wow" moment). These women were homemakers who wanted to rear their children with a sense of which the other wives provided, cherished the bountiful munificence of their spouses and called for the decriminalisation of polygamy in order to prevent abusive underground polygamy
Just as polygamy is not only the domain of the eastern cultures, monogamy and its cultural eminence is not only the preserve of the west. It is not only western literature, drama and music that venerate the love of one. In Arabic literature, tales such as Qais and Layla
and Antar and Abla
suggest that popular Arabic culture espoused monogamy, suggesting that plurality was in fact, the exception.
Most men I speak with do not immediately, in hypothetical circumstances, refuse to countenance the notion of taking a second or third wife. In a juvenile spirit of experimentation, most would choose a different model (one could argue, still able to view it in only conformist terms, as an affair), a demi-mondaine with whom to have a fling, a joy ride. But few can imagine it being a permanent arrangement lest it dilute their ideal relationship with their chosen mate, or make a mockery of the sincerity of their feelings and utterances of affection.
One second wife piously rebutted my protestations that polygamy was against human nature by claiming that God would not have permitted it in the Qur'an if it was such an aberration. The acceptance of polygamy by women and its practice by men across cultures raises the question, is monogamous exclusivity merely social convention spawned by an embryonic flush of first love, held aloft as an ideal? Figures on male infidelity and the co-existence of so many co-wives across the world suggests otherwise. Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of one wife?