Diary of a Feminist: Understanding Polygamy

The concept (and practice) of taking up to four wives has always intri­gued me. Rather, enraged me. I always thought irritatingly, ‘Well, if a man can take four wives why can’t a woman take four husbands?’

As I grew up and delved further into the question I realised the complexity of the issue and naivety of my stand: polyandry is no answer to polygamy. Telling the kid one’s not sure who his father is among the four guys is as confusing as the disclosure that the poor soul has got four mothers (one real, three step)!

Uncertainty about paternity is more outrageous in today’s social context. But we should not forget that there is considerable evidence that matriarchy existed in pre­-historic times, preceding patriarchal rule. In those days descent was traceable only on the maternal side as in­terpreted by Bachofen draw­ing evidence from myth and early history of religions, thus challenging patriarchy’s claim to primeval origins or biological necessity.

But we can leave Bachofen’s Das Mutterredt and even Engel’s contention that patriarchy evolved through subjugation and ownership of women as property. We con­cern ourselves only with the Quranic injunction which is interpreted by the majority of ulema in favour of polygamy by ignoring the part of the verse which doesn’t suit their whims, i.e. “….if you can treat them all equally.”

What they forget mean­while are the conditions pre­valent before the advent of Is­lam: subjugation of women in Arab Society had reached the height where female infants were buried alive. Another point of import in this context is that though the Quran did not abolish slavery, it paved the way for its gradual eradi­cation and restoration of hu­man dignity. Thus by allowing to take up to four wives God indicated directions toward the desired path of a just soci­ety: by letting the slaves go free, treating them well and advising men to marry female slaves (kaneez).

Leaving aside the orthodox males, there is a brand of mod­ern male chauvinists who justify polygamy on biologi­cal grounds. Their contention: man by nature cannot be satisfied sexually by one woman, thus polygamy is the only way to curb infidelity or licentiousness.

This supposed ‘sexual kingship’ is nothing short of a wishful thinking perpetuated by centuries of conditioning. For scientific and medical evi­dence today tends to show that the female biologically possesses a greater capacity for sexuality than the male. It is an altogether different mat­ter that woman’s sexuality issubjected to intense social force, curbed and repressed.

There is still another categ­ory of men who in their abso­lute ignorance of national statistics and presence of con­ceit and bloated ego an­nounce, ‘There are more wo­men than men in the country. So the men should marry two or more and let these women have a taste of life’.

I find such utterances abhorrent and nauseating, to say the least. They should know that Pakistan’s sex ratio today stands at 111 which means there are 111 men to every 100 women. For good­ness sake it means there are more men than women in Pakistan. And this ratio is an abnormal deviation from the standard ratio.

The primary function of the family and the institution of marriage is the socialization of the young. And that means bringing up healthy, in­tegrated, well adjusted be­ings in the world. Certainly by ‘socialisation of the young’ we do not mean to bring up dis­turbed, with-a-feeling-of-being-uncared-for personalities.

Do you know what a second marriage does to the young souls of children? Well, at least everybody knows what it does to the woman. A second marriage simply devastates the first wife. And just be­cause psychological devasta­tion is not equal to physical death or insanity, people dis­miss the matter by a single stroke of ‘She has survived, af­ter all’.

If you look into the cases of mental illness in the country you’d find that the second marriage is definitely one of the disruptive factors in the family. It is one of those crises which trigger mental illnesses in young people who are more susceptible towards neuroses and psychoses.

It’s high time for the ulema and the concerned Muslims to look in to the effects of polygamy rather than justify­ing its causes. And that social scientists and psychiatrists conduct studies to gain an un­derstanding of its implica­tions, injurious or otherwise, on the social fabric.

People need not only harp on ‘the increasing incidence of divorce and its harmful ef­fect on our society’. They must learn to face the total reality and not to hide parts of it un­der dubious, religious garb.

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