Is the institution of marriage large enough for multiple wives?



'Marriage is like a fort. Those who are in want out, those who are out want in," says an Arabic proverb.

My ideas on marriage and my self-proclaimed tolerance and respect for people's choices in life were tested last month upon hearing of an upcoming wedding in the family.

"What?" was my immediate reaction when my cousin announced that a relative was getting married.

He was taking a second wife, and through the grapevine we heard that it was actually his first wife's idea.

Wanting to find out the full story for myself, I called up the first wife and had a heart-to-heart discussion.

"Well, they say there are seven women to one man in Lebanon, so I am helping out with the statistics," she joked, trying to defuse some of the tension.

This silly statistic, I quickly pointed out, was totally baseless, quoted and re-quoted in the media after a single commentator pulled it out of a hat. It was such a ridiculous claim, I had personally chased up the story to debunk it.

But before this first wife is neatly boxed as a stereotypical docile Arab wife, it should be known that she is a professor and a woman of the world. She isn't being forced into anything and isn't afraid of what "people" will say.

It is less common these days for Lebanese men to have multiple wives, and so sometimes the community gangs up on those who decide to marry again.

"You cannot forbid what Allah allowed," she reminded me. In Islam, up to four wives are allowed, but only if certain conditions are met.

One of the most important is that the husband must be just and fair, and treat each of his wives equally. According to the Quran: "But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one." (al Nisa' 4:3) In this woman's case, she can't have any children, and she doesn't want to deprive her husband. A barren wife is also one of the factors considered in religious law.

Generally, a discussion on multiple wives stirs controversy in the West, not the Muslim world. Almost on a daily basis, there are TV dramas on local and regional channels revolving around families where there is more than one wife and half-brothers and sisters. Sometimes these shows are comedies, like the popular Haj Metwali, anEgyptian series where the husband keeps his four wives on different floors of the same building and we follow the jealousy and dramas between them.

Others use comedy to portray the seriousness of the issue, like in one of the Ramadan episodes of the Saudi series Tash Ma Tash. Just the title of the episode, Taadud al Azwaj, or "Multiple Husbands", upset religious figures because Muslim women are not allowed to have more than one husband on the grounds that her children's lineage will be lost.

The story follows a Saudi woman with four husbands who wants to divorce one so she can marry a fifth. By describing the shallow reasons for her marriages, the show focused not only on jealousy, but how wives must suffer when men abuse this matrimonial rule.

Of course, it is not always the case. I have several friends from the Gulf who grew up with more than one mother in a loving, tight-knit family. There are always arguments for and against in matters of relationships, but it should be up to the individual and not society to judge.

On a related note, there was a recent article in a Saudi newspaper condoning "work marriages", a new form of temporary marriage. It singled out the medical field, where doctors get married "instead of committing a sin" when an attraction forms after long hours worked together. Depending on the doctrine, there are different thoughts on temporary marriages, generally called Mutaa marriage by Shiites and Misyar by Sunnis.

Given all this confusion about marriage in one form or another, I think I have made my decision. For the time being, I'd rather remain outside the fort as an observer.

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