Inequality between man and woman is one of the key features of an unfair male- dominated world order. Although India is a secular democracy and all citizens are equal, it needs no reiteration that women are relegated to a low status in society across caste, religion, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Laws enable protection to women against social maladies, but the latter often persist owing to patriarchal mindsets and traditions in society. Legislation against misogynist practices such as sati, widow ostracization, bigamy, dowry, domestic violence are good examples of the law coming to the aid of women’s dignity and human rights. Injustice to women may continue forever in the name of religion and culture without legal safeguards. Polygamy amongst Indian Muslims is an apt example.
Injustice to women happens under polygamy when a man is entitled to more than one wife. It was quite common till 50 years ago for men across India to have two or three wives.
Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code made polygamy illegal for all citizens — Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis — except Muslims. Muslims are allowed to marry up to four wives under the Shariat.
Special legal provisions allow bigamy among the Hindus of Goa and permit certain tribal customs as well in different parts of the country. For all others, bigamy is punishable with a jail term of up to seven years.
We conducted a survey on polygamous marriages for which questionnaires were given to 290 women and we undertook 50 case studies in the states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
Apart from sharing the details of their lives, the women also highlighted the need to end polygamy. Those calling for an end to polygamy included women who were first wives as well as those who were second wives. Their responses highlight the fact that such relationships are not advisable at all.
Our survey indicates that being in a polygamous marriage causes tremendous emotional trauma to the woman apart from economic and other hardship. It affects the woman’s sense of self-respect, self-esteem and dignity. They face educational and economic deprivation as they are in no position to raise their voice and demand fair treatment.
Most wives in polygamous unions have low levels of education and income status. Seventy-seven percent of first wives are dropouts below Class 10 and 43 percent do not have an income. Further, a large proportion of women in such arrangements — about 52 percent — have an income below Rs 10,000. This indicates that women in these marriages are deprived of economic independence. In 45 percent of cases the age of the husband at the time of the first marriage is between 21 and 26 years and in 38 percent of cases the age of the husband at the time of the second marriage is between 21 and 26 years.
With only 9 percent of husbands having studied up to graduate or post-graduate level, it can be concluded that the education levels of husbands in polygamous unions is also quite low. Another important finding is that in 49 percent of cases where the woman happens to be in a polygamous union, the parents have selected the spouse. This shows the relatively little autonomy that women have within this institution and makes a mockery of the Quranic provision of consent. It also highlights that assumptions about free, autonomous choice of spouses in polygamy is not true.
It is clear that women hardly have the same bargaining power as men when it comes to their choice of spouses, especially in instances of polygamy. An overwhelming number of women said they felt a sense of betrayal, loss of dignity and loss of self-respect when the husband married again.
The survey highlights the severe mental health issues that plague the women. Fifty percent of women said that they were depressed most of the time. They also reported other symptoms of depression such as lack of adequate sleep (43 percent), frequent aches and pains (33 percent), not feeling good about themselves (33 percent) and even a tendency to self-harm (43 percent). An overwhelming number of women (84 percent) felt that polygamy should be outlawed. Seventy-three percent even said that a husband who takes a second wife should be punished.
Twenty-nine percent of girls who were first wives and 18 percent of second wives had been married before the age of 18. Seventy-seven percent of first wives were school dropouts and only 11 percent had studied up to Class 10. Twenty percent were illiterate, 4 percent were graduates and just one percent were postgraduates.
They also lived in extreme poverty. Forty-two percent of first wives had no income at all; 40 percent had an income below Rs 1,000. Among second wives, 45 percent had no income and 34 percent reported an income below Rs 1,000.
Ninety percent of first wives said their husbands did not seek their permission to remarry. Only 23 percent of husbands informed the wife about their second marriage. Seventy-two percent of women learnt about their husband’s second marriage through family or their neighbours or friends.
The husbands cited various reasons for taking a second wife. Thirty-five percent said they fell in love with someone else; 11 percent cited no children and six percent wanted to remarry to support a widow or divorcee. Twelve percent said their parents had asked them to remarry and four percent said their wives were bedridden. Ten percent blamed their wives, six percent wanted sons and 11 percent were not happy with their spouse’s physical appearance — the colour of her skin or her figure (too fat, too thin). Forty-five percent of husbands threatened to divorce the first wife if she resented the second marriage.
Some of the first wives — 29 percent —approached a Qazi for redress after the husband’s second marriage. Forty-two percent of women reported that they were told to adjust since the Shariat allows the man to take a second wife. Ten percent of Qazis said it was the man’s right in Islam. Twenty-two percent of the women were advised to take Khula or divorce the husband. Twenty-six percent were asked to file a case against the husband if they were unhappy.
The women reported a deterioration in relations with the husband after his second marriage. Forty-one percent of first wives said their husbands did not live with them anymore; 25 percent said they spent less time with them; and 15 percent said the husbands did not care for them at all.
Just 40 percent of husbands paid monthly maintenance money to the first wife; 47 percent did not pay at all and 13 percent paid irregularly. Forty-four percent of women started working after the husband remarried.
Most women, about 41 percent, moved to their parents’ house; 35 percent lived in the same house as before; 14 percent lived on their own on rent; and 10 percent lived in a new house provided by the husband.
Forty-five percent of women said they tolerated the second marriage because they had no option, and they were concerned about their children. Over 50 percent of women suffered mental trauma such as depression, self-blaming and suicidal tendencies.
QURAN AND POLYGAMY
It is commonly believed that Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four wives as per Quranic injunctions. But the truth is to the contrary. It depends on how the verses are interpreted. Polygamy has been in practice in Arabia and elsewhere throughout cultures and regions much before the advent of Islam. It is believed by some that by restricting the number of wives to four, Islam attempted to regulate its rampant practice at the time.
The Prophet of Islam was monogamous in his first marriage to Bibi Khatija. After her demise, he entered into marital alliances for largely political and tribal interests except in the case of Aisha. The Quran permits polygamy in a certain context and with strict conditions. The Quran does not encourage polygamy remotely. Today the context is very different to 1,400 years ago. There are no wars happening leading to a shortage of men. On the contrary, sex ratios are adverse with a fewer number of girls than boys. There are no orphans and widows in need of protection through marriage since they can empower themselves and decide the course of their lives independently.
The Quranic verse Sura AnNisa’ 4:3 says, “Marry women of your choice, two, three or four” but goes on to add “but if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them, then marry only one”. Further, verse 4:129 says, “You are never able to be fair and just between women even if you desire to” and therefore, “marry only one”.
A selective reading of verses has led to abuse of provisions without considering them in totality. The spirit of the Quran is centred on justice, kindness, compassion and human wisdom. How are these upheld by marrying four wives?
Besides, we live in a modern world where girls and women have opportunities to attain their human potential through education, awareness and economic independence.
Muslim countries like Turkey, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan don’t permit polygamy. Neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan permit it after written permission of the first wife and approval by a council. Muslim women as Indian citizens are entitled to the constitutional rights of justice, equality and human self-worth. There is no reason for this injustice to continue.
FINDINGS OF THE SURVEY
29% of girls who are first wives and 18% who are second wives were married below the
age of 18.
71% of second wives are dropouts below Class 10, 20 percent are illiterate, 4 percent are graduates. Of first wives 77% are dropouts below Class 10, 11% studied upto Class 10,
7% are graduates and only 1% are post-graduates.
42% of first wives have no income at all; 40 percent have an income below Rs 1,000.
Of second wives, 45% have no income at all and 34 % have an income below Rs 1,000.
Only 23% of husbands informed the wife about their second marriage and 72% of women learnt about their husband’s second marriage through family or external sources like neighbours or friends.
REASONS FOR SECOND MARRIAGE
35% of the husbands said that they fell in love with someone else while 11% cited having no children, 6% said they remarried to support a widow or divorcee and 12% said their parents asked them to.
ROLE OF THE QAZI COURT
29% of the women approached a Qazi for redress after their husband’s second marriage and 42% of the women were told to adjust because it is allowed by the Shariat while 26% were asked to file a case against the husband if they were unhappy.
Zakia Soman is a founder-member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a mass organization of Muslim women in India
Anand - April 16, 2023, 5:02 p.m.
Is there a way out of this aberration ? Can the demand for change ever come from within the community ?
Dr Chiranjeeb Kakoty - April 16, 2023, 3:58 p.m.
Well written, Zakia Soman. Kudos, Civil Society.
Chandralekha Anand Sio - April 15, 2023, 9:09 p.m.
Polygamy is an injustice to women and their children, when there are children in the family ,in many ways. Polygamy should be banned in their interest and that of society at large..
Iftekhar Hai - April 15, 2023, 8:26 p.m.
I was born in Velloore, Tamilnadu, India in 1942, migrated to Pakistan in 1965 and finally took USA citizenship after arriving in San Francisco in 1969. In Bombay I went to Catholic school, later did BS from Podar College in Matunga, Mumbia. Living in USA for more than 50 years I have concluded that all religious scriptures need to be re-interpreted in the light of globally connected digital communities. I agree with Zakia Soman
vyas Devilal - April 15, 2023, 5:59 p.m.
The second marriage is an injustice to women in any religion. or women should also have the right to have a second marriage.