India's Muslim women say "No second wife!"

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India’s Muslim women say ‘no second wife!’

by Mari Marcel Thekaekara


Indian Muslim women henna their hands for important festivals eg. Eid. (Izzah Zainab under a Creative Commons Licence)

‘No Second Wife, please’ is an interesting headline. Jyoti Punwani’s wrote the article in The Hindu’s Sunday magazine last month. She described some unexpected reactions from Indian Muslim women’s groups to banning polygamy (making it illegal to have more than one wife). One Indian Muslim women’s movement, The Bharatiya Mahila Muslim Andolan, has been working on Personal Indian Muslim law. What they found was very surprising: in 10 states, most poor, illiterate Muslim women voted to stop the practice of having more than one wife. (India has Hindu, Muslim and Christian Personal law, as well as national civil law, which makes the law complicated). But educated, middle-class Muslim women did not want to change the law. Even when it means that 13-year-old girls get married before they finish school. But the women with no education wanted their daughters to have education, and chose 21 as a good age to marry.

Islamic scholars writing the new law say that the changes are based on the Qur’an. But the Qur’an has more modern views of women than the laws of any other religion. It is the clerics who understand it, and sharia law, wrongly. So they make Muslim women follow laws created by the control of men. It is very good that Muslim women are voting for change.

Indian feminists and most Muslim women think this is great. But the Indian media has not reported much on the important politicians who (illegally) have more than one wife and are not punished for this. In most states, rich men get women as easily as they get cars or houses. In Kerala state, always different from the others, the media often shows the sex scandals of politicians. But in most other places, no-one notices. Mostly the men get no punishment, because it is difficult to prove rape and trafficking. And there is not enough evidence, or witnesses are paid by the important men.

Several years ago, an angry senior civil servant said to me, ‘People in Delhi are saying that Gegong Apang, Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, has eight wives. Why?’ I found an old article where Apang said: ‘The prime minister has given me permission to marry a second time. Polygamy is OK here. My father had six wives.’ Other politicians were very angry at this at the time. I telephoned Domoya, the only young woman from Arunachal state I could easily reach, to see what she thought. ‘Women are very angry when their husbands marry again,’ she told me. ‘But what can they do when society accepts it?’ The article about Apang says: ‘The two wives do not speak about each other, but a local report said that his first wife attacked the second wife.’ This was all a very long time ago. But it’s normal in many places.

In Tamil Nadu state, everyone knows that many politicians have second or third wives. Women are always afraid their husbands will get the ‘Chinna veedu’ (translation: ‘little house’). A second wife brings problems for the first wife and her children. Will he support them financially or leave them with nothing? A second wife is very bad for most Tamil women. It is easier for richer men to get several women. But they are not allowed to be “wives” by law. Our society has very different standards in saying if sexual practices are OK or not. And there are often terrible fights about who gets the house and money when the man dies.

So, because of all these problems, senior lawyers are discussing if it is a good idea to make Muslim polygamy illegal. Even the fourth Muslim wife, they say, maybe has a better life legally than a second live-in partner (who is not married) of a Hindu, Christian, Jain or Parsi man. It is very strange that any woman would accept their husband having several wives; but, as my daughter said, some Mormon women are happy with the idea of ‘Sister wives’.

And so the fight for women’s rights continues. For better, for worse.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).