I’m not a second wife, and I have no plans to ever be one. There is only really one reason I need to clarify this, which is because I’m Muslim. And when it comes to tropes associated with Muslims, polygamy is right up there.
It probably explains why, this week, news surfaced of a British website called secondwife.com, which offers an online matrimonial platform for men seeking second (or more) wives in the UK. It launched in June, but interest appears to be growing with a reported 100,000 users having signed up. There’s also a sister site for those who are not Muslim called polygamy.com.
Polygamy is illegal in the UK, and carries a potential prison sentence of up to seven years. Second marriages are only recognised if they happened in a country where it is legal – but there is nothing to stop unregistered religious only marriage ceremonies taking place in Britain.
Supporters point out an inherent hypocrisy in our attitudes towards polygamy. We see Muslim multiple-marriages as revolting but, at the same time, champion the rise of the unconventional romantic relationship. Only last week, the writer Laurie Penny described her own longstanding polyamory.
In this wider context, surely polygamy should fit in? If all consenting adults are happy, who are we to judge? But when it comes down to it – and this may see me criticised by some members of the Muslim community – I just can’t support it.
The Quranic prescription for polygamy suggests that men can marry two, three or four wives (but not the other way round, naturally). The historic context was that men often died in battle. Polygamy was a way to ensure widows and children would be cared for. In that highly patriarchal society, where women did not earn money, the brutal truth is that this might be the only way a fatherless family could survive. So rather than the ‘perk’ for men it is as seen today, polygamy was an extra responsibility.
The Quran adds that if men fear being unjust between their wives, then they must avoid polygamy. In the Islamic world view, injustice is one of the most serious transgressions. This is where I think God has a sense of humour because he’s poking fun at men – you think you can handle more than one woman, but you can’t.
Today, polygamy is framed differently, as a way for men to show they are seemingly more religious and masculine. And – as the number of users secondwife.com has gathered in just a few weeks shows – there has been a recent upturn in its popularity in Britain.
It has seeped into conversation almost unknowingly. From YouTube videos to populist clerics and fictional stories shared across Facebook about women learning to love polygamy despite themselves. All framed in the discourse of men’s ‘right’ to polygamy and not infringing on this ‘truly Islamic tradition’.