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RIGHTS-BAHRAIN: Women Don’t Need to Accept Polygamy – Activists

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Jul 21 2010 (IPS) - In her 30s, Muza has been married for years but has managed to remain financially independent. In fact, she was even able to help build the home she has with her husband, using the money she earned as a teacher.

But Muza failed to realise early enough that because the house was in her husband’s name, she would not have legal claim to their conjugal home if their marriage did not work out – or if he took another wife.

Because she had nowhere else to go and refuses to give up what is also hers, Muza ended up sharing the house she had paid for and took pains to decorate with, with her husband’s second wife.

As in other Gulf states, Muslim men in Bahrain are allowed to practise polygamy. Shariah law allows men to have a maximum of four wives, although Shiites are allowed more than that, through temporary marriages or ‘mutta’.

But polygamy is not really popular or fully accepted among women here. According to a 2006 study done by Somaya Al Jowder of the National Sexually Transmitted Diseases Programme, only four percent of the country’s estimated 500,000 men have more than one wife.

Still, women’s rights advocates say far too many men in Bahrain abuse the law, to the detriment of women, whether it is in matters of law, rights or equality.

For instance, rights activist Afaf Al Jamri says, “(Women) are being harassed by their husbands (with polygamy), as many men force and threaten their women to be obedient to them or (they will) remarry.”

“Such fearful lives are unbearable,” continues Al Jamri, who happens to be the daughter of a very conservative Shiite scholar. She says that many men seem to have a “wrong interpretation (of) Islamic regulations” on marriages.

Polygamy, she says, “isn’t unconditional”, although it “could be practised in certain cases”, such as when the wife has a serious ailment. Al Jamri says those who can take more than one wife are men who are well off and “who will treat wives equally”.

Unfortunately, say rights advocates, that seems to be more an exception than the rule. Twenty-nine-year-old Hanan, for example, is now stuck in a marriage in which her husband is absent and where their daughter is being supported by Hanan’s own brother.

“I didn’t think he would (take another wife) after we spent years dating,” says Hanan, who like Muza declines to give her full name. “Although I was in total shock, I accepted. But the worse thing happened when he stopped supporting our daughter and left the task to my brother.”

She says she endured the situation for a year before filing for divorce, but has since had to withdraw the case.

According to the distraught Hanan, who remains married to her husband even though she now lives separately from him, the judge warned her that her husband would gain full custody of their daughter and would challenge her allegations of maltreatment by “highlighting (the fact) that having four wives is an Islamic rights for men.”

In this male-dominated society, Hanan gets little sympathy even from Islamic lecturer Fatima Bosandel, who says the judge is right. Bosandel says that while any woman may find it hard to share her husband with someone else, men here have an “unquestionable” right to have more than one wife.

“Women should be aware that no judge will grant them divorce only because their husbands got other wives,” she says. If they want to end their marriage, she adds, “they should give evidence of maltreatment.”

Bosandel blames the negative connotation of polygamy on Arabic-language television dramas. “I’m aware of many cases in which wives of one man are sharing good relations,” she says. “One of many examples I came across is of a man who married a widow with children, as he cannot have children of his own.”

Now, she says, the man is “living happily with his two wives in one flat and both wives are raising the children”.

Huffs Bosandel: “Single women in their mid or late thirties should accept married men instead of leading lonely and empty lives.”

But lawmaker Jassim Al Saidi, who has three wives himself, is among those who are against promoting polygamy. Like Al Jamri, he says the practice should be limited to those who are financially and physically fit to have more than one wife.

“I married my first wife when I was 19, the second one when I was 29, and the last in my late thirties,” recounts the 50-something legislator. ” (I)…managed because of my financial capabilities to keep them in separate homes. Such a lavish life is hard for majority of ordinary Bahrainis.”

Some women activists, however, say they there is a way to prevent women from having to put up with marriages that have gone ‘multiple’ without their consent.

Shahzlan Khamees of the Bahrain Women’s Union says she has drafted a new kind of prenuptial agreement that “could include proper conditions that would not only ban men from remarrying, but also all demands by women and men to avoid marital problems.”

“Many husbands forced women to leave their jobs, have many children, or don’t help their families financially,” she adds. “So conditions that could protect the rights of women after marriage could be included. Sometimes, women can state a condition that enables them to get divorce whenever they wish or have custody of their children.”

The international rights group Freedom House says that while Bahrain ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2002, it had “reservations on articles concerning family law, equality, freedom of movement, and residence.”

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