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Palestinian Journalist Chronicles Brutal Life of Muslim Sister Wives

Polygamy is widely practiced in Gaza—and the women (or “sister wives”) are not happy about it.

So says Asmaa Al-Ghoul, who has just exposed this practice in an article for Al Monitor. Al-Ghoul is a heroic feminist Palestinian journalist who, in 2009, was fired for her work in which she exposed honor killings on the West Bank and in Gaza; she was harassed, threatened, and nearly arrested by Hamas for this work. I interviewed her at the time by phone and published a series of articles about her.

Now, she reports that polygamy is practiced by both rich and poor in Gaza. Anecdotally, she describes “hostility” and “hatred” between a pair of “sister-wives” who visited a beauty parlor together. She also quotes a financially independent and professionally successful woman who chose to become a second wife but who now says:

Becoming the second wife is the worst decision that a woman can make. She will always live with the guilt of taking what was not hers. In most instances, the second wife discovers that 90% of the things her husband told her about his circumstances and his first wife were lies.

Another woman, a first wife, describes the enormous “pain and humiliation” that she felt when her husband sprang a second wife upon her.

Polygamy is legally sanctioned by Sharia law, by the Hadith, and by custom. A man is supposed to treat each woman “equally,” something that is humanly impossible to do. The classic arguments in favor of polygamy are as follows: A man does not have to remain in an unhappy marriage—but he does not have to divorce the mother of his children for whom he remains responsible; if a woman has been widowed or has no husband and if she cannot support herself, a married man can extend the kindness of “protection” by marrying her; if she is poor and cannot afford a dowry, becoming a dowry-less second, third, or fourth wife will afford her the chance of marriage and childbearing; and, if a man’s first wife cannot bear children, polygamy allows her to remain part of an extended family where she may enjoy her husband’s children in her life.

This does not always work out. One might remember how Mohammed Shafia’s second wife, Tooba Yahya, tormented his first wife, Rona Amir Mohammed, who was infertile. Mohammed, Tooba, and their son honor-murdered Rona and three of Tooba’s biological daughters who were all seen as “too Western” for Afghan girls who lived in Canada.

I once lived in a polygamous Muslim household in Afghanistan and, based on that first-hand experience, coupled with research and interviews, it is also clear that male lust, both for sex and for as many children as possible, is also a factor in the practice of polygamy.

It is also clear that in poor families, everyone lives in close quarters and the first wife uses and abuses the second wife as her indentured servant—until or unless the second wife begins producing high-value sons. Then, the tables may turn. Also, the half-siblings are in a dead heat competition for their father’s affections, attention, and for whatever inheritance there may be.

This practice is hardly confined to the West Bank and Gaza. It is rampant in Europe, especially in the UK, where the number has been estimated to be at least 20,000 such illegal unions. This often means that the second, third, and fourth wives do not enter into legal unions but are married under Sharia religious law only. They have no rights—and they scarcely understand the situation they are in. This also means that polygamous families, which are illegal, may nevertheless be all living on the dole.

Guess what? In 2008, the estimate for polygamous unions in the United States was even higher and ranged from 50,000 to 100,000. However, a Palestinian woman, now a second wife, explained that when she got divorced, she became a “pariah” in her Muslim community in New Jersey. Thus, marrying again, even illegally, solved her problem within the community.

A Muslim-American woman from Senegal confirms my own observations. She says that her father married four women and she had 19 or 20 siblings: “‘Sometimes he doesn’t know who’s who, and he forget the name’ of his children and wives.”

This practice is not slowing down. Recently, at the end of 2014, a UK-based matchmaking site appeared for “Muslim polygamists.” It is called “The Second Wives Club.” Here is one man’s rationale for having multiple wives:

‘Women were created in their nature to fight for man, to fight to win him,’ he said. ‘This is when her best comes out. But when there is no one to fight with, then she gets lazy with you… [polygamy] is more in the favor of the women than the men.’ ‘Most of the men deceive their wives,’ he said. ‘I bet that a man can be nicer to his wife when he has a girlfriend/wife than when he hasn’t. Because they feel guilty. Thus they became nicer to their wives.’

Many women have set up accounts at this site—including those who live in the United States.

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