Polygamy: reconstructing Scheherazade

Published in the Daily Times on November 24th 2010

An estimated 17 percent of all families in Pakistan are associated with polygamy in their primary relationships. This means that as many as one-fifth of our population lives in an arrangement of compromise, most likely to take up a share of resources and pieces of the emotional pie that have come to them at a social cost

In her masterpiece, Scheherazade Goes West, Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan Islamic scholar, draws the reader into a history of how the western imagination of eastern harems emerged. The fantasy world of one man, engulfed by many houris in a Turkish bath has often found its roots in the paintings of a notable western artist’s depictions of the Arabian East. As men divide themselves among many, they become a scarce commodity, increasing their demand. Women, meanwhile, have not much to opine about, but to shut up and look pretty, presumably enjoying their subservient secondary role in a misogynist and male chauvinistic society as depicted in this oriental’s artistic imaginings.

Women in our recent history from the East defied this concept and created art that was a more realistic portrait of women. Closer to home, Nur Jahan from the Mughal era commissioned portraits of herself and of women on horses and elephants, in the midst of romance, seemingly more powerful than they would be in a herd. Islam, Mernissi says, empowered more women as it carved its empires onto the map of the world, conquering and ruling with women, not on them.

We seem to be moving in diametrically opposite directions simultaneously. On the one hand we have women like Asma Jahangir becoming the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and, on the other, women choosing to become nothing but a second wife to a man.

It has been difficult to miss the recent media frenzy over the man who married, on the same day, two of his cousins, both whom he claims to love. Undoubtedly, love has its dark side, but this is a travesty of love itself. What is worse is that both women in this irrational matrimony solemnly swear to be tied to the sanctity of the marriage institution with equal devotion. Suppose they were to feel that everything will be shared in a set proportion, but is it possible to divide affections? Sooner or later, one of the members of this closely knit family will forget their place.

An estimated 17 percent of all families in Pakistan are associated with polygamy in their primary relationships. This means that as many as one-fifth of our population lives in an arrangement of compromise, most likely to take up a share of resources and pieces of the emotional pie that have come to them at a social cost. These strains in relationships have an economic stress on the system as well. Everything gets sliced up into two, sometimes three and even four parts. The erroneous concept that a good Muslim can marry up to four times is more a popular folklore than reality, but as a result there are a few adventurers that actually take the plunge into those harem dreams — only to find more responsibility at the end of the line-up.

But where do these dreams get manufactured? The media is, for a start, one place. Although one expects the entertainment media to use the polygamous cousin as fodder, the fact that it has captured the imagination of serious talk show hosts shows just how right of centre and sick our society is. One talk show host could not wipe the smirk off his face throughout his show. Two brides, who sat on either side of the man, with no-holds-barred makeup on overkill, were sitting pretty like goats being brought for ritualistic Eid slaughter. The questions were: this is every man’s dream, what is it like? Which of the two do you like better? How did you get the women to agree? How do you manage to keep them content? He asked the ladies: do you not despise one another? Do you two ever fight? Which of you is a better cook?

Polygamy can be entertaining. There is a successful television serial, starring Bill Paxton no less and produced by Tom Hanks, on the life of a Mormon polygamist in the US. Polygamy is a way of life for a lot of people, as outlined above, but it is time we look at it as the social perversion that it is and recognise that it is an institutionalised mechanism of denying a lot of people their rights under the law. A majority of these marriages happen in the guise of the oppression of women. Often, against the will of the first wife and even more often, though not acknowledged, under the limited or denied rights of the secondary wife.

Probably, the only progressive piece of legislation in our sordid history, the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961, drafted by Allama Pervez, Pakistan’s rationalist Muslim scholar par excellence, is not silent on this. “No man under the subsistence of any marriage, shall (except with the previous permission in writing of the Arbitration Council) contract another marriage, nor shall any such marriage contracted without such permission be registered under this ordinance.” Similarly, the permissions are clearly to a) include a written acceptance from the first wife, and b) state a valid reason for the second marriage. Thereafter, and only if, this is accepted by the Arbitration Council, which is nominated by the wife or wives and husband, is the marriage to go ahead. Yet women are pathetically ignorant of their own rights under the law. Even more disappointing are our religious lot who choose to follow the ridiculous fatwas (decrees) from Darul Uloom Deoband over this piece of legislation, which goes a long way in establishing the rights of Pakistani women.

Therefore, it is not a foolproof system to begin with because there is room for manipulation, but democratic in spirit nonetheless. It must be known that polygamy is not only frowned upon by the law, but on many counts it violates the basic law of nature, distribution of property to legal heirs and has been known to break many hearts. We must now strive towards a secular civil code in Pakistan, derived from rational thought and common sense. It is about time that we abolished canonical laws altogether and strove instead for secular equality for men and women.

It is time for the Scheherazades of Pakistan to know their rights, and to stand up for them.

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