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23 Feb 2020 8:16
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  •   Home > News > International

    What it's like to be in a polygamous marriage? Muslim Malaysians share their stories

    Muslim Malaysians often have complex and tangled views about polygamy, and their beliefs aren't always mirrored by their actions. An adventure sportsman, an academic researcher and a feminist activist share their stories.

    Qobin has climbed the highest mountain on every continent on Earth.

    He's skied the South Pole and the North Pole, 111 kilometres each, across some of the world's most unforgiving terrain.

    He jokes that the far greater challenge — even harder than reaching the summit of Everest — is having two wives.

    "It is not easy to take care of people's hearts," he says.

    "This is my faith, so I have to do my best for both wives and then I have to take it as a challenge in myself."

    The 37-year-old has six children — four with his first wife and two with his second.

    His two families live in separate homes, about 10 kilometres apart, in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur.

    It's a hyper-modern metropolis, a city of overhead driverless trains, snaking freeways and soaring skyscrapers.

    Muslim Malay, Chinese and Indian communities happily work, eat and shop together, but they maintain their distinct traditions.

    Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that Muslim men can have up to four wives.

    Although only a small percentage of marriages are polygamous, the practice is alive and well: each year in Malaysia, more than 1,000 men go to the Sharia Law Courts to apply for a polygamous marriage.

    Two nights with one wife, then two nights with the other

    Qobin, whose full name is Muhammad Muqharabbin Mokhtarrudin, exemplifies Kuala Lumpur's unique mix of traditional and modern.

    As well as running several businesses, he's an aspiring politician who hopes to one day be Malaysia's sports minister.

    He says he "never planned" on having two wives.

    Lowering his voice, he says he loves his first wife and describes her as "perfect".

    But after eight years of marriage, when Qobin was visiting Thailand, he met the woman who would become his second wife.

    "I am a very straight person," he says.

    "I don't want to lie to my wife, so I talk to her about the second one."

    After a few months, his first wife accepted the idea.

    Qobin spends two nights with one spouse and then two nights with the other.

    The two households get together for family events and both wives regularly mind each other's children.

    He tries to be fair — what he buys for one wife he also buys for the other — but Qobin acknowledges that jealousy is still an issue.

    "I always pray to Allah that he will take care of their hearts," he says, adding that problems for his wives become problems for him.

    A complicated matter

    But why would a woman agree to be a second wife? And why does a first wife agree to it?

    A few years ago, Dr Wan Zumusni Wan Mustapha, or Zunie for short, worked on a research project with feminist organisation Sisters in Islam, which surveyed and interviewed more than 1,000 people in polygamous families: husbands, first wives, second wives and children.

    She discovered that women have a number of motivations for becoming a second wife.

    "Most importantly women want to be taken care of. They want to be provided [for], they want to be protected," says Zunie, who is also a senior lecturer at Academy of Language Studies at the Universiti of Teknologi MARA.

    "There are still many women out there who are struggling, working very hard and if they do have the chance for a comfortable life — why not?"

    Zunie says sometimes women are trying to deflect the negative attention that comes from being single.

    Becoming a second wife allows them to "upgrade their status".

    "Most importantly, if they have a husband they won't be harassed by other men," she adds.

    When it comes to first wives, the researchers found many are coerced or pushed into accepting their husband's decision.

    "Some voice their dissatisfaction but some, in order to save the marriage or for the sake of the children, will just go on with it," Zunie says.

    Sisters in Islam also recently conducted a separate survey of Muslim Malaysian women.

    It found that while 70 per cent agreed that Muslim men have a right to polygamous marriages so long as they can treat all wives fairly, only 30 per cent would allow their own husband to marry another woman.

    Zunie says the first wives she talked to in her previous research were "unhappy, miserable and depressed".

    "I don't see how it can be in the interests of the first wives," she says.

    But it's complicated: Zunie herself has also been a second wife.

    'I don't need a husband 24/7'

    Zunie's polygamous marriage was not the usual kind, if there is such a thing: she married her best friend from high school.

    He and his wife had been unable to have children.

    Zunie, who already had four boys from a previous marriage, thought she could help him have a child.

    "I already had my own career, my own life, so I thought that I don't mind being a weekend wife, I don't need a husband 24/7," she says.

    "So I thought OK, this can work for me."

    The couple married and Zunie fell pregnant, but it soon became apparent that the first wife was unhappy.

    Eventually, Zunie decided it was best for everyone to end the marriage.

    The divorced couple remain close friends and while their son lives with Zunie, he spends time with his father and his father's first wife.

    Interpretations of the Koran

    Most Muslim marriages are not polygamous and there is a debate among Muslim Malaysians about the rights and wrongs of multiple marriages.

    Zainah Anwar runs an international organisation called Musawah, which means "equality" in Arabic.

    Musawah promotes gender equality in family law systems across Muslim majority countries.

    Zainah was also one of the co-founders of Sisters in Islam.

    Since its creation 20 years ago, the group has argued that Islam — at its heart — upholds the equality of women.

    Zainah describes studying the Koran as an incredibly liberating, enlightening experience.

    "We discovered verses that [are] completely the opposite of what we are told by the ideologues of Islam that dominate the public space," she says.

    "The verse on polygamy actually says 'to do justice it is best that you only marry one'.

    "So how come that the first half of the verse — that you can marry two, three, four — becomes commonly known as a men's right in Islam? But the end of the verse — that [says] it is best to marry only one to prevent injustice — is forgotten?"

    Zainah says it is important to question how one interpretation of the Koran gains legitimacy at the expense of another alternative interpretation.

    "That is why we decided we need to bring out this other understanding of Islam, this other message of Islam that is for women's rights, justice, compassion [and] equality to the public space," she says.

    "The Islam defined by the patriarchy and the ideologues in authority is not the only understanding of Islam."

    Qobin says his first wife's family have accepted his decision to take a second wife and his father-in-law even teases him about him taking a third wife.

    "I think I will have only two wives," he says.

    And would Zunie — a financially independent feminist — ever contemplate another polygamous marriage?

    "On the one hand I feel empowered. I can live on my own, I have my boys," she says.

    "But on the other hand, it would be nice. If there was someone that loves me and could protect and provide for me — why not?"

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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