P.S: This piece is written purely as a personal observation on personal impact of Polygamy on the lives of women concerned, without judging the theological, or general social implications of Polygamy.
I was raised by a father, who for some personal reasons intensely hated the idea of even teasing one’s wife for another ‘shaadi’. He insisted this was a sadistic joke.
And with this in the background I landed as a newlywed in a place where ‘other’ wife was not only talked about with much thrill, but polygamy was quite often practiced in real.
Several times in the beginning I was snubbed for my disapproval of it, by the pious, for it being allowed and mentioned in Islam in so many words- one, two, three or four.
One of the relatively polite friends explained; “See in their society, this is the norm, so they don’t mind. I know of co-wives living in absolute harmony. Since we are not used to this, we find it strange and get critical.” This coming from a non judgemental, desi friend born and bred in west, I had no reason to doubt.
For the first few years, as a stay home Mom of two little kids, all I heard was the men’s side of the story. In a very matter of fact, non threatening manner, my husband would tell me the juicy comments that were hurled at him. “Young, handsome man, with only one wife, look at me I’m 65, and have three.”
Age was no bar, and talking of multiple wives or of planning to take more was the favourite ‘boy-talk’, more so for those on the wrong side of age.
On replying to some random patient’s off the cuff marriage proposal, that he was married, my husband was preached, “So what, I am not asking you to divorce her. Allah has allowed you to keep up to four.”
Even while visiting parents for a long holiday relatives would question, “So might your husband not marry someone in your absence? It’s so common there.”
Thank God, insecurity never came close to me. Not because it could not happen, or that it was allowed in Islam but because, if he had to, my fears would not stop him.
As I joined back work, I incidentally landed to work in a community where polygamy was more common, than not, especially for the middle aged and elderly men. They usually had two or three and few even had four wives. The eldest wife would be almost their age, as they generally married very young, but the others would be years or many times several decades younger to them.
However, the outlook of polygamy being acceptable by the women in that society, totally turned out to be a mere myth. Almost all women, whether unlettered or educated, housewives or working, young or old, urban or rural, who had other co wives were nowhere near normal in accepting the ‘other woman, or in many cases other women.
Except for one curious case, where the first wife had been through hell after her husband got the second. When he married the third, she came to me (being my patient), rejoicing, “The second one is screaming and crying. Now will she know what hell I went through when she came in?”
The third wife was almost as old as the daughter of the first wife, but they ended up being great friends, all conniving against the middle one.
Rest all of them, I knew were tragic sagas or epitomes of jealousy. The anger and jealousy corroded not just their individual selves, but their families too.
Complains of the other doing a ‘sahar’ ( black magic) was the most frequent. Curious, and unbelievable accusations were hurled by them at each other.
Once, a young lady in her early thirties came hysterical complaining that her womb and vagina were filled with worms after the younger one did ‘sahar’ on her. I took the history and she was most consistent in describing the symptoms, and explaining them in explicit details.
“Why would she do this?” I asked
“Because she does not want me to get pregnant.”
On examination, when nothing positive came out, she rejoiced claiming that it was because before coming here, she had visited the Sheikh, who made for her dua and gave her something to eat. Instead of thanking me for finding nothing, she kept praising the sheikh for his instant miracle.
Was she lying? No
Was she insane? No.
This was simply the manifestation of morbid jealousy, which usually occurs among the co-wives or suspicious wives. Her jealousy had induced the delusions of such sort in her mind.
( By definition: Morbid jealousy aka Othello Syndrome or Delusional jealousy, is a psychiatric disorder in which a person holds a strong delusional belief that their spouse or sexual partner is being unfaithful without having any, very little, or insignificant proof to back up their claim.)
For more strong hearted, there was always a tug of war as to who would grab the attention and money from her husband more. Unfortunately for them the attention meant the number of nights he spent with her as compared to the other co-wives.
Spying on each other was a routine, and they frequently inquired:
“The other one had an appointment with you yesterday. Is she pregnant?”
“Why was she here? Is there anything wrong with her?”
It took some time before I learnt the flawless trick of how to evade such questions without offending them.
A friendly patient, recently divorced, in a conversation requested: “Look for me a Pakistani man.”
Before I could even think out an answer she continued, “How about your husband”.
Although this one was purely uttered in humour, for them such talk was not a taboo.
What I personally observed was that as a direct result of polygamy, marital discord, domestic abuse and divorces were frequent too.
A husband talking to another woman was generally taken with suspicion. Many of them were even paranoid.
However, they had a reason to, since deciding to take a second or a third wife was as easy as deciding to buy another car on top of the old one. All it required was certain amount of money to pay as dower to the father of the bride.
It even had its economic toll, when one man with average wage was to fend for a family larger than normal, and even when he had surplus money, instead of improving the plight of the home, he would prefer to finance another wedding for himself.
Many smart women manipulated the situation by never letting their husband have enough money to even think of a second one.
Broadly speaking it kept the women constantly in a hyper vigil, anxious state. This certainly took its toll on the children too. They got entangled in the cross politics at home, and many of them, especially girls grew up disliking their fathers, and hating step mothers. Jealousies corroded the families and individual values.
Once, on discussing about our family life, keeping our savings in a common pool, for a future project, one of the colleagues, who was herself a second wife remarked:
“I wish I was from a culture like yours, where I lived with my husband as a cooperative wife and not as a spend thrift, or as a guard, constantly on high alert. I wouldn’t care even if I was from a poor country like Pakistan.”