By Irfan Husain
25 July 2015
AMRA Bone, Britain’s first woman Sharia judge, recently told the Times: “… the British government cannot ask Muslims not to have more than one wife …”
Really? Why not? After all, Muslims in the UK cannot sacrifice animals in ritual slaughter either as this would contravene existing anti-cruelty laws. Similarly, female genital mutilation is banned, although this vile practice is widely carried out in parts of Africa.
So to demand that Muslims curb their libido is hardly unreasonable. Although according to British law, bigamy is punishable with seven years in jail, thousands of Muslims have polygamous marriages that are not registered. According to one estimate, 70-75pc of Muslim weddings are unregistered, with around 20,000 polygamous relationships in the UK.
With an increasing number of Muslims born and brought up in the UK leaning towards a literal, fundamental vision of Islam, many young men are opting for Sharia marriage, bypassing the local registry office. Another reason — and probably the more practical one — is that under British law, the assets owned by a married couple are equally divided if they divorce. It is this protection accorded to women that is denied to Muslim divorcees under these informal matrimonial arrangements.
According to the Times, 100,000 Muslim couples are living under such unregistered marriages. And when they are registered, they are often arranged matches in which British Muslim girls are married off to young men from remote areas of Pakistan to secure the latter the right to enter Britain, and in time, acquire residency and nationality.
The notion that the customs and religious tenets of migrant groups should supersede the laws of the host country runs contrary to the treatment most Muslim countries mete out to non-Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, merely the possession of the Bible can lead to a prison sentence or worse. So for British Muslims to insist on following their religious practices irrespective of the law is a bit hypocritical. The old saw — when in Rome, do as the Romans do — is still apt.
But it would be a mistake to assume that all polygamous marriages take place purely because of predatory male instincts. In a 2014 Channel 4 documentary on polygamy in Britain, the director, Masood Khan, interviewed an independent, professional Muslim woman involved in a polygamous Sharia marriage. She justified her situation by saying that she did not want a man around the whole time, and preferred being with her ‘husband’ for a couple of evenings a week, and letting another wife cook and clean for him.
She reminded me of a Sudanese woman I met in Lahore many years ago. Part of a World Bank delegation, she had been educated in Paris and New York, and was the daughter of a diplomat. She told me she would prefer a polygamous arrangement because she could continue with her career, while the senior wife was in charge of the household.
And if Muslim men in Britain have become more fundamentalist in their belief, so have the women. Third- and fourth-generation Muslims are not just more religious than their parents, but also more self-conscious of their religious identity. Thus, the women declare their faith by wearing headscarves and burqas, while the men cultivate long, unkempt beards. For these young people, polygamy is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a religious duty.
However, polygamy is not a universal Muslim practice. Less than 5pc men actually take more than one wife. But the growing numbers of young Muslims who do so in the UK has given rise to the notion that polygamy is common across the Muslim world.
Thus, the gulf between what David Cameron frequently refers to as “British values” and hardening Wahhabi beliefs among young British Muslims is growing. In many cases, those who have made their way to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State have stated that they have done so in order to live as Muslims in a caliphate purified of un-Islamic, Western practices.
When they witness the horrors inflicted on non-Muslims and Shias, and want to leave, they quickly discover that this is not an option. Scores of foreign volunteers have been killed for trying to flee the violence and the horrors of life under the killers of IS.
Many Muslims in Britain feel they are being made scapegoats for the actions of a tiny minority who have been radicalised. Nevertheless, the media is full of stories about Muslims being involved in terrorist plots. This constant refrain feeds into the widespread impression that extremism infects a majority of Muslims.
Against this backdrop, polygamy is perhaps not such a big deal. However, it reinforces the belief that Muslim women are exploited and mistreated. And as surveys have consistently found that women in Muslim countries are severely disadvantaged, we cannot really challenge this perception.