Where I grew up, polygamy was normalised through the actions, stories and tacit approval of the adults around me. Even though the negative side of having multiple wives were not ignored, there was no struggle for justice either. In retrospect, the apathy surrounding the women who were suffering is astounding.
A Malaysian NGO, Sisters in Islam (SIS), produced a short video illustrating the myths and realities around polygamy in Malaysia. From 2007 to 2012, the NGO carried out in-depth interviews with 63 respondents from polygamous families, on the impact that this marriage institution has in Malaysia. According to the information on their YouTube account:
"SIS hopes that the data gathered from our nationwide research on the impact of polygamy on families will prompt the relevant authorities to re-look and reform current Islamic Family Laws on polygamy in Malaysia."
People say... Polygamy is the undeniable right of a Muslim man.
In reality... Based on Surah An Nisa (Quran 4:3), polygamy is only allowed in order to protect the property and welfare of orphans whose fathers were killed in war.
People say... Men practise polygamy to fulfill the sunnah (practice) of Prophet Muhammad.
In reality... 70% of husbands surveyed admitted to practising polygamy because of sexual attraction.
People say... Co-wives tolerate polygamy for emotional and material reasons.
In reality... 42% of second wives work overtime to support household expenses.
32% were forced to contribute to expenses of the husband, his first wife and their children.
56% of husbands failed to provide sufficient nafkah (allowance), while some did not provide any allowance at all.
People say... Only men with sufficient wealth practise polygamy.
In reality... Men who cannot afford to practise polygamy still do so.
70% of husbands interviewed earn MYR 3000 (USD 700) monthly or less.
People say... Polygamous men divide their time fairly between their wives and children.
In reality... 50% of husbands do not discuss the distribution of time with their wives. (50% do.)
64% of first wives found that their husbands did not follow the arranged schedule.
42.5% of second wives and 77% of the first wife's children are unhappy with the arrangements.
People say... Children do not mind their fathers being polygamous.
In reality... 87% of children interviewed find that polygamy has negatively affected their psychological wellbeing. Some fathers did not know to which wife a child belonged to. Some did not know the names, ages or birthdays of all of their children!
92% of children oppose polygamy because of their own experiences.
People say... Polygamy brings happiness to husbands.
In reality... Husbands admit they suffer emotional stress due to time constraints, financial burdens and complaints from their wives and children.
47% of husbands work overtime and take on extra jobs.
50% admit that taking turns between houses is exhausting.
People say... Malaysia's sharia family laws are fair in dealing with polygamy and family matters.
In reality... The laws are only ideal in theory; enforcement is extremely weak.
60% of first wives were not summoned to the Shariah Court to give their testimony on their husband's eligibility and capabilities for polygamy, before the judge granted a second marriage.
40% of polygamous marriages took place outside the country, mostly at the Thai border.
32% of those marriages did not register their marriages in Malaysia, thus neglecting the legal rights of the new wife and her children.
The Islamic Family Law Act 1984 states the requirements for a proposed [polygamous] marriage:
- It must be both appropriate and necessary
- Husband must be financially capable
- Husband will treat all co-wives equally
- It will not cause darar sharie (harm) to the existing wife/wives
- It will not directly or indirectly lower the standard of living of existing wife/wives
However, the 1984 Act was amended in 1994. Husbands now no longer have to ensure that the standard of living of existing wife/wives remain the same (See #5 above).
In 2005, the 1984 Act was amended again to make polygamy easier for men. The proposed marriage only has to be appropriate OR necessary (See #1 above).
The 1984 requirements must be reinstated and strictly enforced. Polygamy should not bring happiness to only one party. The purpose of marriage is to create happiness between two people who love and feel compassion for one another (Quran 30:21).
And you will never be able to be equal between wives, even if you should strive [to do so]. So do not incline completely and leave another hanging. And if you amend and fear Allah - then indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful. (Quran 4:129)
All data in this video was obtained from 'Impak poligami atas keluarga Muslim di semenanjung Malaysia' (2007-2012) [Impact of polygamy on Muslim families in Malaysia], a research collaboration between SIS and researchers from The National University of Malaysia (UKM), Malaysia Science University (USM) and Malaya University (UM).