Polygamy: when religion and traditions mingle
In this part of the world it has long been assumed that, based on the provisions of Islam, a man has the privilege to take more than one wife. Yet it appears that beyond the male-oriented interpretation of the Qur’an on which this assumption is based, the widespread practice of polygamy in the Horn is not fundamentally connected to Islam but rather stems from the patriarchal ideology manifest in traditions and inherited beliefs. And it is not restricted to Muslims: many non-Muslim societies in the Horn of Africa also practise polygamy.
The widespread practice of polygamy in Muslim communities around the Horn can be attributed to many factors, among them the ancient traditions that intersect with imported dogmatic interpretations of Islamic religious guidance. The result is a complete submission to the practice, which - when incorporated in the Islamic local jurisdictions - also gains spiritual value.
A further factor is the geopolitical situation in the Horn of Africa. The poor population, who emigrated to the Arab Peninsula as labourers and traders, have been influenced by the strong Salafist ideology the Arab Peninsula has been burdened with for the past thirty years or more. Poverty in the Horn countries and issues of conflicting identity, in addition to cycles of civil wars, are all supplementary factors that have contributed to turning the region into a backyard of militant and misogynistic ideologies fostering a range of harmful practices, polygamy among them. The fiqh and sharia debates around polygamy, like other issues in the Horn countries, have therefore been dominated by dogmatic and poorly-educated clergy who gain their legitimacy from their connections to political power and wealth.
Unlike in the Horn, which is positioned at the margin of Muslim regions, many Middle Eastern and North African Muslim countries made serious attempts, during the 20th century, to limit and restrict polygamy. These countries based their efforts on the proven societal damage it causes to future generations. In Tunisia, for example, polygamy has been banned by law since 1956. The main claim of prohibition was that the practice of polygamy was outdated and its past functions (e.g. to protect widows and orphans) were no longer relevant to society. The other main argument was that the Qur’an’s ideal was indeed monogamy.
Turkey is the only other Muslim nation that has abolished polygamy, where it was officially criminalized with the adoption of the Turkish Civil Code in 1926, making Turkey the first nation to do so. Penalties for illegal polygamy are up to two years’ imprisonment. The current ruling moderate Islamist Party effectively banned polygamists from entering or living in the country. Other countries like Egypt, Morocco and Algeria have undertaken serious reviews and amendments of their family laws and made efforts to observe women’s rights by restricting polygamy and improving the conditions of women within the institution of marriage. In Algeria contracting polygamous marriage must be justified and a prior notification of any existing wife is required; any co-wife may petition for divorce on grounds of harm if her consent was not obtained.
On a positive note, Djibouti is the only Muslim country in the Horn that has made efforts to amend its family laws in line with its international legal obligations, yet maintained its Islamic identity and Islam as a source of jurisdiction. They have adopted restrictions on polygamy similar to those of Egypt and Algeria. The rest of the Horn Muslim countries and societies have made no effort towards amending their laws, let alone questioning or changing women’s situation within their imported sharia legal framework.
Globally, the Horn region has become a harbour for religious militancy and dogma. Women are persecuted by the law, and polygamy is practised and mistakenly encouraged as an instrumental aspect of Islam.
To understand the argument against polygamy, we have to understand that it has always been part of human history. Islam came into a world where polygamy was being practised on a large scale, just as slavery, the subordination of women, the killing of infant girls and other forms of human injustices were widespread. Based on the Qur’an, all these patterns and practices are presented as the acts of pre-Islamic society, also called jahelya “the times of ignorance”. Some of these injustices were addressed immediately in the Qur’anic texts and abolished, such as the killing of infant girls. Others, like polygamy and slavery, were left as open windows to be abolished by society’s legislators and scholars.
Muslim men and women continue to interpret and develop contemporary understandings of the essence of the Qur’an as an eternal text. Although the Surah An-Nisa, which mostly refers to the legitimisation and de-legitimisation of polygamy, states that it is not prohibited for men to have up to four wives. But the same surah stresses the importance of justice in dealing with them, and also states very clearly that it’s impossible for a man to do so.
The principles of Islam provide guidance for child support and women’s access to her share of wealth accumulated during the years of marriage, in case of divorce. However, none of these liberating values are recognised, appreciated or applied seriously in the Muslim societies around the Horn of Africa. The current legal system in the majority of these Muslim societies emphasises preserving the interests of men and ensuring their domination, further neglecting women and children’s interests and wellbeing.
Overall, the politicisation of Islam throughout its historical evolution and its intersection with existing patriarchal systems has hindered a progressive and enlightened interpretation of the holy text, particularly on matters of equality between men and women.
A documentation undertaken by Sudan Organisation for Research and Development (SORD) examined the implication of the current Sudan Family Code on women. The code is based on strongly patriarchal interpretations of Islamic guidance in family matters. The documentation revealed the condition of thousands of women who are suffering massively as a result of being divorced and having to look after their children. They further face condemnation from the legal system which has no clear stipulation on enforcing maintenance of the children and the women’s access to their share of wealth accumulated during years of marriage (nafaga). The misogyny found in the Sudan Family Code goes as far as not even mentioning any stipulation towards addressing the living conditions of women who are living in polygamous relationships – rendering absolute power to the male partner, backed by state ideology.
Beyond economic inequality, polygamy also results in injustice, violence, and disempowerment of women and their children. The long-term impact is on the generations of young men and women growing up a polygamous system. Children fall through the cracks of abandonment and inherit notions of inequality and subordination of women as well as a lack of accountability. Millions of children are left to grow up with no father figures, posing long-term social and developmental crises in many Muslim and non Muslim societies that encourage polygamy.
From Women in Islam Issue 1 (2014)