Jul 10, 2016


Sunday 10 July 2016

The Guardian

Catherine Bennett

A plan to get around the British bigamy law has had a surprisingly respectful response. From non-Muslims

What with being illegal in this country, and so strongly favoured elsewhere by the nastier cult leaders, polygamy has not had the best press in recent years. The polygamy survivor’s memoir, usually detailing protracted slavery and abuse, has proliferated almost into a literary genre, although not, it emerges, one influential enough to have deterred British practitioner Mr Azad Chaiwala from a new campaign to “revive” polygamy.

With two new, polygamy-specialist dating agencies, one for Muslims, one not, Chaiwala plans not only to make money but also, he has been explaining in a remarkably effective publicity campaign, to remove the local taboo and spread understanding of the benefits of wife collecting. “What I’m offering,” he told Vice last week, “is a man with many wives.”

The attractions sound almost limitless. Imagine, if you are a man, not being reliant on one wife for the efficient multiplication of your genes, but on a battalion, young, old, tall, short, chatty, taciturn, good at cooking, great at scrubbing floors, whatever, and without even having to start an extreme religious cult in Utah to reap these benefits. When, as so often happens, one wife starts to get a bit threadbare, or negative, you simply pick another with a bit more joie de vivre – though frugal – to a maximum of four. Although he only has one wife at present, Mr Chaiwala plans a matrimonial extension quite soon – and before you rush to apply, ladies, bear in mind his: “I’m quite picky.”

Moreover, Chaiwala has admitted, the benefits are mixed for women. “There is not a woman on Earth who would be totally comfortable with it. Even the Prophet Muhammad’s wives showed signs of jealousy.” More recently, female endorsements for polygamy remain thin on the ground – from Saudi, from Erdoğan’s Turkey, from Egypt and from Libya, where would-be polygamists no longer need consent from their first wife. Of course this hardening of patriarchal controls, following the Arab Spring, could be seen to confirm Chaiwala’s argument that polygamy is more popular than ever. Though citing gay rights as some sort of precedent for polygamist liberation, he portrays his project as an enlightened, even modish sort of scheme, one that only accidentally aligns with the hopes of religious megalomaniacs and fundamentalists.

For a woman with the right team spirit, he stresses the advantages, inside the marital home, of the division of domestic – and presumably sexual – labour. For spinsters, one need hardly add, access to even a quarter of a husband represents an immediate reprieve from ignominy.

At the biological level, he has found, the arrangement is better suited than monogamy to anyone sharing his fairly essentialist view of the sexes. “Men are more sexually orientated,” he told Vice last week. “Women are more emotional and caring, nurturing.” You gather that this is an arrangement that would suit an Andrea Leadsom, or Theresa May, quite as well as it will Mrs Chaiwala and, for that matter, female members of the US “prophet” Warren Jeffs’s dynasty. Before being imprisoned, the controller of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fathered 60 children with an estimated 78 wives. Extreme religious leaders are often, for some reason, quite as keen on sex as they are on the enforcement of modesty; FLDS women were made to dress like pioneers, in floor-length, hand-sewn pastels.

So far, given that what he proposes is illegal under British law as well as crudely sexist, Chaiwala’s wheeze has had a strikingly respectful reception, at least from non-Muslims. Maybe it was lucky that this exercise in taboo-lifting coincided initially with a local political cataclysm and now, with absorbing disagreements over whether victories by senior Conservative woman can correctly be celebrated as feminist. At any rate, perhaps Chaiwala is right to hope that, as before (recall the initial, “sharia compliant” Law Society advice), scrupulous tolerance for allegedly authentic cultural idiosyncrasies will make a mockery of women’s and girls’ equality and the rule of law.

By way of contrast, the German justice minister, Heiko Maas, has just affirmed the primacy of national legislation where marriage to minors and polygamy are concerned. “No one,” he told Bild, “has the right to put his cultural values or religious beliefs above our laws.” To marry, yet dodge British bigamy law, Chaiwala’s website suggests a compromise. “We advise,” it says, “you still have a ceremony in which your families and the religious community recognise the marriage, even though it may not be legally recognised.” It was left to Khalid Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Perry Barr and a Muslim, to point out that such schemes put “a person in huge peril, because they are not allowed to claim, as a partner, on his estate”.

Polygamists are inviting these second, third and fourth wives to commit, solemnly, to an unequal arrangement that offers them no protection in the event of separation, marital disputes or bereavement, other than might be available, in the case of Muslims, from a sharia council.

Would those hearings, where a woman’s testimony is worth half a male co-religionist’s, offer such wives any justice? Until the long-overdue Home Office review delivers its report, in 2017, there is little to go on, beyond the discriminatory basics, undercover filming and descriptions in a book, Choosing Sharia?, by a Dutch academic, Machteld Zee.

After being allowed – following the confirmation that she was not a journalist – to watch 15 hours of hearings, she concluded that sharia courts are consigning women to “marital captivity” and failing to report domestic violence. She says the courts, confirming long-standing concerns about unfairness, “always favour the man”. For instance, one woman, seeking a divorce from her spouse – abroad for four years and remarried – was refused her request, according to Zee, and urged by clerics to accept the marriage “in polygamous form”. The council rejected Zee’s account.

Hopes that the Home Office independent review might dismiss any legitimacy claimed for sharia’s exclusively male-run system have faded with the announcement that it is to be chaired and advised by professional theologians from the very religion they represent (but by none of their reported victims).

Moreover, in this compromised shape, the inquiry will not question the rationale for parallel, secretive justice systems, designed to privilege religious over secular practices, merely ponder how to ensure their “best practice”.

The British government, with its theological hat on, frets that some rulings may be “contrary to the teachings of Islam”.

Now, hundreds of women’s human rights campaigners, in an open letter to Theresa May, express the fear “that many vulnerable women simply will not want to give their testimony before theologians who legitimate and justify the very idea of sharia laws on the grounds that it is integral to their ‘Muslim identity’”.

Indeed, they point out, “the panel is set up much like the sharia ‘courts’ themselves”.

That being the case, Chaiwala is right: the future of British polygamy is beginning to look quite promising.


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