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More than two’s a crowd

  • Published at 01:09 pm August 28th, 2017
More than two’s a crowd

Last week, I was visiting one of the most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean basin, Cairo, Egypt. The city’s night sky is simply mesmerising, with thousands of stars like blinking neon lights; the shining silver moon was fully visible in the sky, and I could see its reflection in the Nile like a mirror.

We were chauffeured in a private car with our own driver, a Mr Yaseer. He was very entertaining, and told us many stories about the places we toured. We had a hearty discussion on society, values, and attitudes towards life in our respective cultures.

Then, at one point, he asked my husband whether he has just one wife or more. My husband replied, with a smile, that he has only one wife. Yaseer happily accepted the fact.

The law and social values

I asked Yaseer if the old tradition of polygamy is still in practice in Egypt, and he said yes. He went on to say that if a wife is unhappy, doesn’t smile, and is always grumpy, then it is fair and just for the husband to marry someone more beautiful and cheerful.

I was a little shocked to hear this and I asked: “What if the man is just selfish and does not respect his wife?”

I tried to make him understand that polygamy is not a good practice, and that it is disrespectful towards women, but my logical reasoning went right over his head and he was not at all convinced.

I felt the pain that women in such cultures, in which this man’s attitude is the common attitude, must feel all the time: Like hundreds of arrows piercing thorough my heart. At least in Bangladesh the practice is much less common and usually looked down upon.

According to the Marriages and Divorces (Registration) Act, 1974, a Muslim man in Bangladesh can marry up to four wives at the same time, subject to the permission of his existing wives.

As per section 6(1) of the Act, no man -- during the subsistence of an existing marriage -- can contract another marriage without the permission of the arbitration council.

An application for permission must be submitted to the council chairman stating the reasons for the proposed marriage and with the consent of the existing wife or wives.

So, there is some legal provision to protect the woman’s rights in the marriage, but it is up to the arbitration council to ensure that the provision is followed -- that the consent of the existing wife (or wives) is sincere, and that she is not being coerced into it by her husband.

Just because something is not illegal does not make it right

The law provides that if the man wants to marry against the existing wife’s wishes, he must immediately pay her the entire amount of the dower already agreed upon. Failure to pay the dower will be an offence punishable with the maximum imprisonment of one year, or with a fine which may extend to Tk10,000, or both.

Unfortunately, our society does not recognise a wife’s contributions to the marital home or the sacrifices she makes. A woman works from dawn to dusk to build her home. Sometimes she does not even have the time to take a break.

She works just as hard as her husband, and yet the husband occasionally abuses her. Unable to endure the abuse, she sometimes seeks shelter at her parental home, but they force her to return. Thus, she is forced to consent to her husband’s second marriage as she has no other option.

A woman’s ordeal

In many cases then, whether through social and familial pressure or through financial dependence, a woman is compelled to agree to something that goes against her own happiness.

Some of our laws have also given unfettered power to men over women, and resulted in the worst possible outcome, affecting the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Polygamy is a very disrespectful and unjust practice that has historically been a part of many societies around the world, but has declined over time.

In modern Bangladesh, there are only a few rural areas where polygamous marriages are still in practice, but in urban areas the practice has drastically fallen. It is gratifying to see that though polygamous marriages are legal in Bangladesh, the percentage is much lower than the average rates found in other Eastern Mediterranean and African countries.

Some people think polygamy is still acceptable. No! Slavery was legal at one time, but we know it’s not OK. Just because something is not illegal does not make it right.

Why should, in today’s world, a woman have to undergo such an ordeal in order to maintain a marital home that she is already devoting her life to?

Why should oppressive customs from medieval times still be used to torture women today?

Miti Sanjana is a Barrister-at-law from Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn and an Advocate of Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and an activist.

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