Posted by Rafiq A. Tschannen
A large-scale study currently underway across Malaysia uncovers proof that polygamy harms everyone involved: from emotionally scarred children, to wives who think they’d be better off as single-parent households, and even husbands who admit “I wouldn’t recommend it for my son; it’s quite stressful.”
large-scale study currently underway across Malaysia uncovers proof that polygamy harms everyone involved: from emotionally scarred children, to wives who think they’d be better off as single-parent households, and even husbands who admit “I wouldn’t recommend it for my son; it’s quite stressful.”
When Malaysian women’s rights organisation Sisters in Islam (SIS) argued that polygamy causes social problems and has a negative emotional impact, leading figures of the Islamic establishment in Malaysia would ask, “What proof do you have?”. When SIS cited cases of women who had approached the organisation for legal services or support, the rejoinder was “That’s only isolated cases” or “When it’s properly practiced, polygamy can create harmonious family life.”
To provide concrete data to support its anecdotal evidence about the impact of polygamy, in late 2007 SIS launched an ambitious research project whose findings are now beginning to come in. Working with academics from three universities, the research has completed about 1,500 qualitative and quantitative questionnaires from across all 12 states of peninsular Malaysia, along with dozens of in-depth interviews. The SIS research may make a significant contribution to global analysis of polygamy because unlike most studies which focus on the impact on wives, this study is also interviewing husbands and children.
Under pressure from Islamic neo-conservatives who have a highly patriarchal view of gender and marital relations, Malaysia’s law on polygamy which was once considered among the most rights-protecting for women, has been significantly relaxed. The 1984 federal Islamic Family Law had five conditions a Muslim man had to fulfil before he could take another wife: that he had the financial means; could guarantee equal treatment of the wives; no harm would be caused to the existing wife/wives; the additional marriage was “just and necessary”; and that the proposed marriage should not directly or indirectly lower the existing wife and dependants’ standard of living.
In 1996, the last condition was deleted and in 2004 “just and necessary” was amended to “just or necessary”. This removed the Qur’anic requirement of justice and fairness, and since ‘necessary’ was not defined in law in Malaysia’s increasingly Islamised atmosphere many men found it easier to obtain permission for a polygamous marriage and exploit legal loopholes without fear of legal or social rebuke. The impact of this shift remains anecdotal since the research found that the Religious Department’s records for 1993-2007 are very uneven. Whether or not actual numbers of polygamous marriages have increased in recent decades, there has been a noticeable normalising of the practice. Many conservative Malay-Muslim politicians ironically claim they have women’s needs at heart, saying: “In the modern context, there are more and more educated, professional women who remain unmarried so we should encourage polygamy”.
Preliminary findings from the SIS research show that many children of first wives report a strong negative emotional impact. Most reported neglect from the father once he got a second wife and more so when he started having children from her. Especially where fathers had more than two wives or more than 10 children, daughters and sons often claim their father can hardly recognise them. When they went to ask for pocket money or school fees, their father would look at them clueless and say “Which mother are you from?”. This happened across the classes.