The Pakistani male’s predilection for second wives has been splashed about in the news a fair amount this year, starting with the claim that 80 per cent of the country’s parliamentarians had a spare wife tucked away somewhere, followed by the disproportionate, nay, fetishistic interest in cricketer Shoaib Malik’s nuptials. While the inability to be satisfied by one spouse isn’t, I confess, the world’s most admirable quality, it was nevertheless surprising to read a column in a local newspaper recently equating the practice of polygamy to suicide bombing. Reasons cited for the outright denunciation of one husband to several wives were limp at best—social awkwardness, an innate sense of ‘wrongness’, and the desire to disassociate oneself as much as possible from the dating habits of the Taliban. Now, I’m generally reluctant to criticise anything consensual that takes place in the private sphere, even more so when the unspoken basis of the argument rests on the assumption that conventional monogamous relationships are not just righteous but also equal. Would that this were the case.
Unlike the widespread and very pleasant Christian ideal of marriage—made in heaven, till death do us part—Islam’s less sentimental system is more recognisable as realpolitik, given to practical concerns such as pre-nuptial agreements and divorce clauses, centuries before these same things became all the rage in America. Much as one may wish it otherwise, monogamy, even after millennia of indoctrination, can still more fairly be described as common rather than natural, hence the hysterical eagerness of pretty much every culture on earth to force it down your throat. As far as I can see, the distaste aroused by polygamy isn’t directed at a man for having more than one partner, what with bounders, cads and loveable rogues having historically cut romantic figures in the public imagination. The public discomfort comes from the tacit, blanket assumption that being a second wife or allowing your husband a second wife is an act of complete subjugation. To rail against polygamy, then, is to suggest a quick cosmetic fix for a far more deeply rooted problem. It is, of course, the rights of women that require urgent improvement, and one’s revulsion would be better served there.
An account of a polygamous marriage in an Abu Dhabi-based magazine recounted, last year, the experience of a woman who felt humiliated that her husband had taken a second wife of the same age as her daughter, undoubtedly much like the humiliation endured by, say, Mrs Silvio Berlusconi or Mrs Charlie Chaplin or Mrs Robin Cook. The reporter agitated repeatedly against the practice of allowing men more than one wife, not once mentioning that the alternative would not be happily ever after, but either infidelity or abandonment. The woman ought surely to be allowed to choose her poison. If the wife in question were economically and socially empowered (mind you, several financially independent women opt for polygamous partners) she ought to be able to walk out, if she does not wish for her husband to remarry she ought to be able to deny him this permission or then divorce him, or for that matter, inform him that she’s leaving him for her young lover on the side. None of her problems relate to polygamy so much as the lopsided distribution of power between the sexes and the less than joyous realities of human nature. Incidentally, with no money and no social clout, does one really imagine that women in conventional marriages of two are not as much at risk of abuse and humiliation as those fending off other wives?
Amongst the urbane, it is strangely adulterers and philanderers who are considered more socially palatable than polygamists. This is not due to an intrinsic difference in conduct but instead because of our attitude to those double standards that we are accustomed to. In sophisticated circles, we cling to the comfortable and familiar hypocrisy of being able to turn a blind eye to extra-marital (or supra-marital, as the case may be) activity. It’s harder to do when accompanied by a nikkahnama.