Colombo, August 12 (Counterpoint): There is no data on the extent of polygamy among Sri Lankan Muslims. Yet, polygamy is seen by the authorities and the majority Sinhala community as being a widely prevalent custom among Muslims, which is both a social evil and a demographic threat to the Sinhala community.
In July this year, the Sri Lankan cabinet decided to prohibit polygamy among Muslims, a decision reiterated by Justice Minister Ali Sabry in an interview to Daily Mirror on August 9. However, Sabry appeared to be aware of the difficulty in implementing the decision by way of a law. He pointed out that it is a controversial issue on which the conservative Muslim lobby led by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) has strong views. But at the same time he said that as a Minister, he would abide by the collective cabinet decision.
As stated earlier, the main ground for banning polygamy among the Muslims is the notion that its practice is responsible for their “galloping” population. But the fact is that the rate of increase of the Muslim population had been only marginally higher than that of the Sinhalese – the majority community. Ms Indu Bandara, a Director in the Department of Census and Statistics is quoted as saying: “Sinhala and Muslim populations had increased at the rate of 1.04% and 1.87% respectively between 1981 and 2012, but it is not a threat to the Sinhala people, contrary to claims made in some quarters.”
Without considering the social, economic and educational parameters determining population growth, polygamy is blamed for the Muslims’ higher rate and alarm bells are sounded warning of a lurking threat to the majority status of the Sinhala Buddhists.
The Muslims have responded to the challenge in two ways: Articles have been written in English justifying polygamy on religious as well as social, psychological, economic and moral grounds. The advantages of polygamy are contrasted with the problems in monogamy. If polygamy is anti-social so is “serial monogamy”, meaning the unending chain of “marriage-divorce-re-marriage” which now characterizes Western society. Polygamy is portrayed as being less deceitful and more stable than “serial monogamy”. Akram Nooramith, General Secretary of the ACJU, told Island in July that the ACJU proposed that polygamous marriages be permitted in all communities under strict conditions to eliminate any abuse.
How prevalent is polygamy in the world and how have Islamic states treated it? A 2019 Pew Research Center report on households covering 130 countries and territories found that only about 2% of the global population lives in polygamous households. In the vast majority of countries, the share of polygamous households is under 0.5%. Polygamy is most often found in backward sub-Saharan Africa, where 11% of the population practices it.
However, it is true that many countries that permit polygamy have Muslim majorities. Even there, it is rare. Fewer than 1% of Muslim men live with more than one spouse in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Egypt – all countries where the practice is legal at least for Muslims as it sanctioned by Islamic law. In India, the incidence of polygamy was the least among Muslims, with just 5.7% of the community practicing it in contrast to the Hindus among whom the prevalence was 5.8%.
According to a piece in the website Scroll.in because the Quran sanctions the acquisition of four wives under some conditions, most Islamic countries have taken the liberty to regulate polygamy. Only Tunisia and Turkey have banned it. Algeria allows polygamy with certain conditions – the previous wife or wives must consent to their husband’s new marriage and a court must determine whether the man can meet the “legal condition of equal justice” to all wives. In case her consent has not been secured, the previous wife can seek divorce.
In Morocco, a marriage contract disallowing the man to take another wife is binding on him. In the absence of such a clause, the man has to notify the designated court about his intention to marry again, and provide proof of his financial capacity to maintain multiple wives. The court summons the first wife, hears both parties in camera, and may permit the man to marry again after stating its reasons in writing. In that event, the court may accept the first wife’s plea for divorce and determine the maintenance allowances due to her. This amount has to be paid within seven days, failing which the man’s application for marriage would be deemed withdrawn.
In Somalia, a man can contract another marriage only for specified reasons – his wife is certified sterile by a panel of doctors, or suffers from an incurable disease, or is imprisoned for over two years, or is absent from her matrimonial home for a year. A Somali man must have verifiable reasons to be a polygamist.
The Indonesian man has to take his wife’s consent to marry a second time, furnish proof of his financial capacity to maintain multiple wives, and guarantee their equal treatment. Legal justification and financial capacity are factors that courts both in Syria and Iraq must examine before allowing a man to have more than one wife.
Legal provisions compelling the polygamist to maintain his previous wife or wives can help limit the incidence of polygamy. For instance, polygamy in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both wealthy countries, has been declining. The principal factors cited for the decline are galloping living expenses and the rising trend of employment among women. Conscious of polygamy’s economic impact, Malaysian courts can reject a man’s application to marry again if they feel it would lower the living standard of his wife or wives and their dependents.
In Pakistan, the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961 lays down the conditions for a man to take another wife. Bangladesh inherited this ordinance, and adopted it, at its formation in 1971. Under this law, the man must seek permission to marry from the chairman of the Union Council, an elected local government body. The chairman then asks the man and his wife or wives to nominate a representative each for reconciliation that an Arbitration Council is required to facilitate. The Arbitration Council determines whether it is “just and necessary” to grant permission to the man to contract another marriage. The wife can appeal the Arbitration Council’s decision before the district collector. If the provision to seek permission from the Union Council is violated, the wife can lodge a complaint and her husband can be imprisoned for a year or fined Rs 5,000, or both, Scroll.in said in its report.
In March 2019, the al-Azhar Grand Imam. Ahmed el-Tayeb, threw a spanner in the works by saying that polygamy can be “an injustice for women and children” and said husbands “must obey conditions of fairness and if there is not fairness, it is forbidden to have multiple wives.” He quoted the Islamic scriptures to say that polygamy is a restricted right or is conditionally allowed. It needs a reason. “If the reason is not there, the permission is withdrawn,” Tayeb said.
Hala Abul Saad, a leading campaigner against polygamy came in support of Imam Tayeb saying: “Polygamy is the prime reason for family disintegration.”
Indeed, divorces are at record levels in Egypt. In 2017, there were 198,800 divorce cases, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics stated, though it is not clear to what extent polygamy is tied to rising divorce rates.