In Western cultures, we consider the practice of polygamy to be primitive and strange, maybe something from the era of cavemen, who we imagine, club in hand, dragging their women around by the hair. We don’t understand it— I certainly didn’t understand it. The idea of being a man’s second wife, or the first wife of two, three or four wives, caused me to recoil in repugnance. It defeated the purpose of marriage, as far as I was concerned. As a spiritual, lifelong believer in true love and the sacredness of an exclusive sexual union, marriage for me could only ever be the ultimate, spiritual union between two people, consummated and symbolized in the physical merging of their two bodies into one. Any marriage involving more than two people, at least to my mind, was not a marriage.
One thing we rarely consider, however, is the fact that love-based marriage is a relatively new phenomenon in our society. Historically, love had no place whatsoever in marriage. Marriage only existed for practical purposes. Stephanie Coontz, who is the Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families in the U.S., a teacher of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington and author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, says that in the past marriage was used as a means to form alliances, to establish peace between families and to consolidate property and power. Against this background, the idea of marrying someone you don’t know, arranged marriages, and even polygamy, seem a bit less shocking.
This is precisely the understanding I came to after a most interesting brush I had with polygamy in a certain Muslim country, which shall remain nameless.
My prospective husbands
After one week in an unspecified Muslim country, I had received two marriage proposals from two married men.
I met Man #1 in the office where I was spending most of my days. He told me he had long wanted a Canadian girlfriend. He said he wanted to move with me to Canada. He gazed at me like a schoolboy in love with his teacher. He invited me to his home and had even invited me to stay with him, saying he had a room for me.
The next day, a woman carrying a cute little baby walked into the office. She was young and pretty, wearing a beautiful purple hijab. I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of her— of her beauty, of her youth, and that she had a little baby. After she left, Man #1 informed me that she was his wife. I was dumbstruck. “What is wrong with men?!” I thought. It seemed that no woman could ever be young or beautiful enough to satisfy some men. No longer jealous, I felt bad for his wife and disgusted by him.
Later, a man I worked with in the office, who said he was happily married and also had a new baby, was flirting with a young woman in the office. Then he turned to me and told me that he thought the woman was beautiful. He told me that he had asked her to marry him, but she said no. I said “But you’re already married!” It was only then that I was reminded by him that Islam allows men to have four wives. It was at that very moment that a light bulb went on in my mind, as I flashed back to all of the questionable behavior married men in other Muslim countries had displayed towards me, which had shocked me at the time as infidelity.
Later, when I confronted Man #1 with the fact that he already had a wife and asked him why he said he wanted me to be his girlfriend, he said to me—”in Islam, a man can have four wives.” He added to this that his wife knew he had girlfriends.
I did visit this young man in his home at one point, and, unsurprisingly, there was a bad feeling between him and his wife, which I felt, in this particular case, was emanating from him towards her. It seemed he was using her, telling her what to do in a harsh and disrespectful tone. She was nice and I felt sad for her. I thought she really deserved much better.
It was with Man #2 and his family that I really came to appreciate polygamy as a kind of practical lifestyle choice.
Man #2 had seen me walking past his house one day while he was outside. He asked me if I needed help and if I wanted to come in for tea. I did. We ascended the stairs to the modest home where his wife and three children lived. The man’s wife prepared tea and cookies in the kitchen while he and I sat on the couch in the living room and talked.
The man was calm and peaceful with a long beard, as Muslim men often have, and he was wearing a cotton djellaba. His wife was also calm and quiet, a peaceful woman. She was a pleasant departure from the mindless, loud, angry shouting I had come to associate with Arab women of her age. Their children were also well-behaved.
The man told me that he had always wanted to marry a woman who spoke English as a native language. It was a strange conversation, a conversation between me, a single Western girl, and a married Muslim man I had just met outside, now explaining to me why he wanted to make me his second wife. He told me that he and his wife get along well together because they are both peaceful. He observed that I was quiet and peaceful like they were and he thought I would fit well into their family. He said I was good, that I had a “white heart” (a reference to purity of heart).
We were then joined by his wife, who served the tea and cookies. She gave me a gift of a beautiful white shawl with delicate lace edging and a handkerchief. Far from being jealous, she was eager to have me as her “sister.” The children, who were so polite, were also introduced to me and supported the man’s marriage to me as well.
The man told me that he and I could spend half of the year at my home in Sweden and half of the year in his country. He even took me upstairs to show me a small apartment above theirs that he was fixing up. He said I could live there. He said he would spend one night with his wife, and the next night with me. He said we would have children and they would be beautiful because I was so white. His wife said I would be her sister. They both painted a picture for me that enabled even someone as impractical-minded as I am to see the practical benefits to be attained through a marriage of this sort.
In essence, I would be joining a small community, the members of which work together for the well-being of the community. A family. A real family.
Even now, as I think back to the experience and the promise in the idea, I get tears in my eyes; I am the child of a violent divorce and a highly dysfunctional family. I don’t know what it’s like to be a part of a family or to have proper parents. I’ve always dreamt about it though. This man’s family was offering me something I had never known, but always yearned for—the security of a small family community, complete with a sister I already liked, who would teach me things that my mother never taught me and spend time with me like a close friend I never had. In turn, my citizenship would presumably enable the family unit to live in a bit less poverty.
The Two Examples
I believe that the latter example is really representative of what polygamy is about in Islam: a familial community working together for its common well-being.
Meanwhile, I consider the first example to be an abuse of the concept by a narcissistic, immature, irresponsible young guy who couldn’t maintain a nice relationship with his beautiful, young wife and mother of his child. I attribute his immaturity to the fact that he was ten years younger than Man #2, and likely not raised as well in his religion either.
I have nonetheless always found it interesting that, despite the allowance for polygamy in Islam, in my travels and conversations with Muslim men, almost none of them want a polygamous lifestyle.
Not My Cup of Tea
I am grateful for the experience that I had with Man #2 and his kind wife, who I really liked. They really showed me what was beneath the surface of a practice that had once repulsed me. I can now appreciate polygamy as a lifestyle, as any other, however I do not consider it a replacement for marriage. I have come to see it as a familial community whose members are admirably committed to each other in ways which have all but become foreign in Western society. They work together, sharing their assets as contributions to the well-being of their community–their family.
For me, polygamy would provide a social and familial closeness and acceptance that I have learned to live without, but it cannot fulfill my need and desire for a secure, truly intimate and private spiritual, emotional and physical union with a man.
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