A congruence of comments on my last post, and media broadcast/articles on this subject resulted in my selection of this topic. Hawkgrrrl commented: “Interestingly, we are now in a position to have to tell converts in countries that allow polygamy that we don’t allow it as we spread to African and Asian countries. India allows it as do both Indonesia and Malaysia (under Muslim restrictions – 4 wives maximum). Personally, I think it’s a doomed system anyway.” and I responded: “The city I grew up in has a large pakistani islamic population, and it wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) so unusual to see families out or a walk in the park on a summer afternoon at the weekend, which included a man, 3 or 4 women concealed by burkha, and children. They don’t seem to be so concerned about the legal status of the marriages, so long as they are islamic. I wouldn’t be so sure about it being doomed.” FireTag’s remark: “I don’t think this is the best of times for the West to be arguing for the short term inevitability of the victory of Western ideals of gender enlightenment.” is also relevant, as is his post (and the discussion that followed) Classy Marriages.

Firstly, as a result of this recent radio broadcast and this YouTube of a radio broadcast made in 2011, and given the almost universal description of polygamy not having been a part of Pakistani culture, I feel I need to revise my description of the polygamous families I observed walking in the park. Whilst the city I grew up did and does have a large Pakistani Muslim population, those families probably were not Pakistani, but from some other Muslim nation. That said it would seem that polygamy is increasingly becoming the choice of third generation Pakistani Muslims in Britain.

In the BBC radio broadcast “Jemima Khan and the Part-time Wife” Jemima Khan interviewed: matchmaking organiser Mizan Raja; Charlotte Proudman – barrister specialising in Islamic marriage, divorce and dowry; Kola Hassan – Islamic law consultant and media representative for the Sharia Council, London; Kalsoom Bashir – project manager for the Islamic women’s organisation Inspire; Senior Imam and Sharia Council judge Mufti Barkatulla; Muslim activist and former director of the Muslim Institute Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui; and Baroness Caroline Cox – member of the House of Lords, and sponsor for the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill in parliament. Also interviewed were a number of individuals describing personal experiences whose identity had been protected. A flavour of the programme can be also gained by reading this article published in the New Statesman.

British law recognises polygamous wives, when and only when the marriages have taken place both according to the laws of countries in which they happened, and before any of the participants first arrived in this country. Bigamy is a crime in Britain.

Charlotte Proudman: A man and or a woman commit bigamy when they take more than one spouse, aware that they are already married. Polygamy in the Muslim faith does not constitute bigamy because the polygamous marriages of the second and third marriage has involved a nikar contract. They haven’t married under UK law. They’ve simply entered into a religious marriage and it allows them to circumvent the UK laws, thereby ensuring that they’re not committing bigamy because the marriage is not recognised, it’s not registered.

So basically, in the eyes of British law, a man and woman living together with a nikar contract, but not a legally registered marriage are in the same position as any other cohabiting couple, of which there are no small number. If a man is apparently cohabiting with different women in different homes, well that isn’t illegal either.

In recent years the number and type of institution granted the right to record legal marriages has been widened, and mosques have been included in this broadening. Very few mosques have registered to do this however.

Kola Hassan: The take up of mosques to be registered to do civil marriages has been very slow. And the other issue has been, I was speaking to one Imam and he said that his mosque is registered, and when a couple come and say ‘We wish to get married here, we wish to have a nikar’, the Imam will say to them ‘You know that this is registered. Therefore you will have a civil certificate as well.’ And the couple turn round and say ‘No thank you. We don’t want the civil certificate. We don’t want to be married in front of the state. We just want the nikar.’ Why? Why are some people actually refusing to have a civil contract of marriage? It could be that there is polygamy, or the potential for polygamy in the future.

Mufti Barkatulla and Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui are disturbed by this trend. In 2008 they developed a Muslim marriage contract, now available on the internet, but which has, disappointingly, received limited uptake by mosques and Imams around the country. The website also gives a good deal of information about the protections of civil registration of a marriage, and the lack of protection for cohabitation.

Dr Siddiqui: We insist that the civil ceremony takes place first, because the civil ceremony of course is recognised as a valid marriage. The nikar is not. So you secure your rights, protect your rights first.

Mufti Barkatulla: It leads to abuse really. Just nikar puts the woman at vulnerable position and it gives men really a lot of undue power and room for abuse.

Jemima Khan: Can you tell me how the marriage contract deals with the issue of polygamy?

Mufti Barkatulla: Based on practical experience and in cases we have dealt with in today’s world, in today’s industrial society, it is impossible to observe the conditions laid down by the scriptures, because in UK legally it is not allowed, so by living in UK we are consenting to abide by UK law, so it is ruled out anyway.

So, what are those scriptural conditions? All those interviewed appeared to be in agreement that according to scripture, if a man is to have more than one wife he must be able to treat all them equally, and that this applies right down to what he gives them, and how much time he spends with each of them. There seems to be the same justification for the introduction of the practice that I have heard given for polygamy early in LDS history, namely for the protection of widows and orphans. I suppose equal treatment could be used as a reason for not choosing to register any marriage legally, but failure to register does not protect said widows and orphans, so for me it is easy to see why Mufti Barkatulla feels as he does.

There are several reasons why polygamy is happening. On the one hand it is coming to be seen as an identity marker by young British Muslims. But another factor would appear to be arranged marriages, either as a work-around for the men, or failure of an arranged marriage for the women.

[Individual quotes, not in conversation]

Kalsoom Bashir: … the tendency I have come across is young men that have been British-born Muslims seeing it as a right that they have, and not necessarily taking the permission of the first wife, and using it as a way of expressing their Islamic identity and sewing their seeds in a legitimate way with an endorsement of faith upon it, to give it legitimacy. Other cases I have where men have had marriages to women abroad at their family’s request. So those women come across, and they don’t speak English. They’re quite isolated. They’re there to look after the in-laws and produce children, so they have nothing in common with their husbands. And then the men are having relationships with women that they’ve known previously, and they have a lot more in common with them, so they’re having parallel lives.

[N.B. Wives coming from abroad will need to have a legal marriage to qualify for a visa.]

Mizan Raja: Some of the women who are actually in their late 30s or 40s with two children or more; it’s very unlikely, from my experience, and they themselves know that, that they’re going to find a man who’s going to be single, or who’s going to be divorced, who’s going to take them on. They would rather consider being in a part-time role. If the man is very successful, if he’s very able, why not?

Farzana: I come from a Pakistani background. I come from an arranged marriage. I didn’t want an arranged marriage, however I kind of went along with it. I consented to it, and then I realised I didn’t have anything in common with this person, so therefore the marriage was redundant. There is a stigma being divorced. The families know each-other. And so-and-so talks. Therefore, there’s always this expectation that maybe you messed up, maybe there was something wrong, or she didn’t have children…

Aisha: In asian society especially, a lot of people don’t want their sons to marry a single mother, and you can’t blame them in a way. … As single mum’s we don’t have pick of the bunch. … Look at it from a woman’s perspective. It’s there for us so we can still have the benefits of marriage, so we don’t have to be left on the shelf, so our children can still have role models, you know – father figures. And so we can still have that emotional stability, financial stability, and you know, security.

Kola Hassan: Where women who are divorced, who are widowed, they may have children, they may not have children, but they want to be with a partner. They want to be in a marriage relationship. In Islam there are very strict rules about relationships.

Unfortunately, those benefits don’t always work out.

Sara: There are these cases of second wives, where it is the state paying for the second wife. So the second wife is on benefits. The man is not paying, which is wrong. It is ethically wrong. In Islam if a man takes a second wife he has to be able to afford it. Not rely on the state. And I’ve seen one or two women who are really in poverty. They’re living in poverty, and I just look at them and I think how can your husband come round and see you living like this, and live with himself. And because again it’s hidden, it means that she can’t really get any justice.

A year ago the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill had it’s first reading, and last October, it’s second reading in the House of Lords. The Bill was introduced by Baroness Caroline Cox and aims to address “the suffering of women oppressed by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination in this country; and a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system which undermines the fundamental principle of one law for all.” Whilst the Bill does not specifically single out any particular religion, it was in part prompted by the practise of polygamy amongst Muslims in this country.

Baroness Cox: People come to this country because of our legal system, because of our democracy, because of our commitment to promoting equal rights for all citizens. One Muslim lady actually said to us ‘I feel betrayed by Britain. I came to this country to get away from this and the situation is worse here than in my country of origin’. You’ve got to put law first. You’ve got to put human rights first. And cultures which contravene that law and contravene human rights and condone women’s suffering, well that’s not a culture that must take precedence.

Jemima Khan: Kalsoom Bashir and her organisation Inspire was one of those who supported the introduction of Baroness Cox’s bill in parliament, but Kola Hassan … believes that restricting the ability to practice polygamy is not the answer to women’s suffering.

Kola Hassan: Polygamy can work, is working perfectly fine in Britain in families that are happy to be part of that system. … The only problem is with the legal side because Britain is refusing to accept that polygamy takes place. … When women are let down because they didn’t have a civil marriage contract it’s not the problem of the polygamous marriage, it’s the problem of the English legal system that refuses to accept it as an entity. It needs to offer it some kind of recognition.

Mufti Barkatulla and Dr Siddiqui look like heroes to me, and it is a pity they can’t get more support from Imams and mosques a round the country. I’m not at all sure that I follow the reasoning of either Kola Hassan or Baroness Cox. The legal position is that these individuals are essentially cohabiting. Cohabitation does not confer the same rights as legal marriage. Just as many Muslim’s participating in a nikar-only marriage are apparently unaware of their lack of legal protections, a great many non-Muslim cohabitees are similarly surprised when something happens, to find they lack protection. There is no such thing as a common-law marriage, though it is often argued in the media there should be. These are all adults making their choices, and taking the consequences.

  • Should a country change it’s laws to accommodate a religious practice (in this case polygamy)?
  • What legal responsibility should religious leaders accept in ensuring that their adherents understand the legal consequences of their actions?
  • When citizens don’t want to avail themselves of the mechanisms (in this case marriage) that would afford them legal protection, should laws be changed to protect them anyway?