Brides are supposed to cry on their wedding days. Even Western brides, marrying the man of their choice, cry on what is supposed to be the happiest day of their life. And my aunts told me that Pakistani brides would be considered somewhat strange if they didn’t cry. "It’s not a happy day, is it? Leaving your family and everything you know. Of course you cry."
But this bride was different. Her wedding was taking place in an Afghan refugee camp, in northern Pakistan. Even though her face was coated in a heavy layer of make-up, it was possible to see that her expression was frozen in a rictus of fear. Her eyes were blank and seemed not to take in any of the scene before her – the wedding guests, the foreign visitor, the women who sang and laughed in a vain attempt to draw her into the celebration. It occurred to me that she might have been given a drug of some kind to calm her down.
The mother of the bride was nowhere to be seen. And when the other women explained why, they dropped all pretence of celebration. "The girl’s mother is in another room, crying. The family is newly arrived from Afghanistan, and they have nothing. They can’t afford to feed everyone, so they had to find a husband for their daughter. She is only 16, and she is marrying an old man. He already has a wife his own age, and just a few months ago, he married another young woman. It is not what anyone wants for their daughter, but what can they do? They cannot take care of her themselves, and they cannot find her a husband of her own age."
In peacetime, the mathematics of polygamy does not add up. If there are equal numbers of men and women, then for every man who takes a second wife, another man has no wife at all. That is why breakaway polygamous Morman sects in the United States have taken to leaving excess teenage boys by the side of the highway – to leave the field clear for the older men to take their pick of the women. Polygamy is damaging to lower ranking men, as well as to women, when a few high-ranking studs corral more than their share of the available females.
But wartime leaves communities with an excess of women. In Australian suburbs, there are still maiden aunts who never married because the young men of their generation were killed in World War II. But post-war Australian society was better able to provide for such women than present-day Afghanistan. The early days of Islam, too, were marked by warfare, by the presence of women whose husbands or potential husbands had been killed in the fighting. And war-torn societies are insecure places for unattached women. Better half a husband, or even a quarter of a husband, than destitution. And if the husband is not to your taste, you might prefer not to have him all to yourself.
I understand this. I can see why that terrified young woman’s family handed her over to that old man, so that she would be fed, and her share of the family’s resources could be distributed among their other needy children. In similar circumstances, I can imagine that most of us might do the same, whatever our views of polygamy.
But most Muslim women regard polygamy in a similar light to the guests at that sad wedding – as a last, desperate resort. Of course, polygamous matches happen in peacetime, as well as during war, although they are much less common. If a first marriage does not produce children, then a second wife may be taken in the hope that she will prove more fortunate.
Polygamy may also be used as an alternative to the form of "serial monogamy" more familiar in Western societies, so that a first wife may retain her status as a married woman once a marriage has broken down and her husband has effectively moved on to a new love. But this violates the injunction for the wives in a polygamous relationship to be treated with equal love and care.
However, the usual justification for polygamy is that it provides women who might otherwise have to fend for themselves with a male protector and breadwinner. This may make sense during times of great social upheaval, when no other form of welfare is available (although I will always remember the blank-eyed terror of that young Afghani woman whenever I hear polygamy justified in these terms). But in a just society, women and girls should be provided for by other means. Many so-called monogamous relationships are of course no such thing, and Muslims are as free to engage in informal polygamy as anyone else.
But institutionalised polygamy assumes that women are in such need of male providers that even a quarter share will do. In contemporary Australian society, women do not need to resort to such means of support. In fact, it seems to be men who need the support of women – need it so badly that one woman is not enough. But that, frankly, is their problem.
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