What kind of woman is willing to share her husband?

Jemima Khan investigates why more and more Muslim women in Britain are choosing to become “co-wives”. For many divorced, widowed or older women, could polygamy be a practical answer to their problems?

Photograph: Getty Images

Farzana is a senior nurse, 36, attractive, selfpossessed and articulate. “I have begun to consider polygamy,” she tells me at a matchmaking event in central London for divorced and widowed Muslims interested in marrying again. “When you think about love in an Islamic way, the co-wife idea makes sense.”

According to Mizan Raja, who set up the Islamic Circles community network and presides over the east London Muslim matrimonial scene, women are increasingly electing to become “co-wives” – in other words, to become a man’s second or third wife. As I reported last year in the New Statesman, Raja gets five to ten requests every week from women who are “comfortable with the notion of a part-time man”. He explained: “Career women don’t want a full-time husband. They don’t have time.” So couples live separately, a husband visiting his wives on a rota.

A dapper City boy listening to Raja whispered to me: “Actually, that’s not right. In late twenties a girl is considered past it, so this arrangement is the best she can get.”

If you’re divorced, widowed or over 30 and Muslim, finding a husband in this country can be a challenge. Does polygamy, or more specifically polygyny (a man taking more than one wife, as opposed to a woman taking more than one husband), as sanctioned by the Quran, offer a possible solution?

Aisha (not her real name), a divorced single mother with two children, recently chose to become a second wife. She was introduced to her husband by a friend. She says that at first she was hesitant. “I was like, ‘No, I can’t do it. I’m too jealous as a person. I wouldn’t be able to do it.’ But the more that time went on and I started thinking about it, especially more maturely, I saw the beauty of it.”

They agreed on the terms of the marriage by email, covering details such as “how many days he’d spend with me and how many days he’d spend with his other wife, and money and living arrangements”. They then met twice, liked each other, set a date and were married. Her husband now spends three days with Aisha and her two children from her previous marriage and then three days with his other family, unless one of them is ill, in which case he stays to help but has to make up the missed time to his other wife.

She confesses that “if he was to stay all the time I’d love it”, but says that having time off “is definitely beneficial in some ways as well”. She has “more freedom” to see her friends and her family, and it is a relief “not having a man in your face half the time, when you are cranky, and he can go somewhere else and you can manage the kids on your own”.

As a divorcee, bringing up children on her own for three years before remarrying, she built up an independent life for herself: “It’s hard to let your goals go for a man all over again.” Although she concedes they have had a “few teething problems” and that it took his first wife “some time to come to terms with it”, now, she says, they “have come to an understanding . . . We are finding our feet.” Both sets of children are aware of the new situation and have accepted it. In fact, she says that her husband’s daughter from his first marriage “can’t wait to meet second Mummy” and her own son, who now has a father figure and “role model” that he was previously lacking, is “really happy with it”. They have yet to experience “a big family get-together”, but Aisha says she is “hopeful that will happen soon . . . I’ve spoken to her [the first wife] a couple of times. She seems really lovely. I would really like for us to become good friends . . . for there to be that kind of bond of sisterhood between us.”

The main obstacle to happiness, according to Aisha, “is the sense of ownership” and jealousy. “But that’s something that you’ve just got to use your wisdom to get past . . . It’s more important for me to have a father for my children . . . to have a helping hand when I need it.” She insists that problems arise only when the husband does not treat both wives equally, as explicitly mandated in the Quran, or when the wives are not mature enough to rationalise and accept the situation.

Anecdotal evidence, in the absence of the statistical kind, suggests that polygamy is on the rise in Britain. And according to a poll conducted over a week by Singlemuslim.com, 33 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women would choose to be part of a polygamous marriage. Because such marriages take place through an unregistered marriage contract, they do not constitute bigamy, a criminal offence in the UK.

The reasons for polygamy are complex. Aisha says that, from her point of view, “Single mums don’t have the pick of the bunch . . . [Polygamy] is there so we can still have the benefits of marriage, so we don’t have to be left on the shelf, so our children can still have role models, father figures, and so we can still have that emotional stability, financial stability and security.”

The stigma of divorce, as well as later marriages and the importing of foreign brides (15,500 women were admitted to the UK in 2011 as wives of British men, according to Home Office figures), have all exacerbated the problem for Muslim women looking for a husband. 

Aisha tells me that her husband saw polygamy as his religious duty. “A lot of people think it’s just about sex but . . . sex goes out the window after a while. If you don’t want your husband marrying someone else, what would happen to these single mums, then, and these divorcees? Is it fair that they just stay on the shelf? We should be looking after our community. Islam is all about community and society and we should look after our brothers and our sisters equally, otherwise it’s every man for themselves.”

Kalsoom Bashir, the project manager of the Muslim women’s rights organisation Inspire, and Khola Hasan of the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, east London, both believe that forced marriage is another reason for polygamy. British men are forced into marriages, often with cousins imported from “back home” with whom they have nothing in common. “For a man who has been in the difficult situation of being forced into a marriage, and the numbers are huge in Britain, absolutely huge . . . for many of them, polygamy is a good way of being happy and keeping the family happy,” Hasan explains.

The Quran instructs Muslim men to “marry women of your choice two or three or four”, but warns that “if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them] then only one or [your concubines]. That is more fitting so that you do not deviate from the right course.” The Prophet Muhammad said, “Whosoever has two wives and he inclines towards one to the exclusion of the other, he will come on the Day of Judgement with his body dropping or bending down.”

In other words, “It is mission impossible,” according to Mufti Barkatulla, a senior imam and sharia council judge in Leyton. He firmly believes that there is no place for polygamy in modern Britain. “There are a number of cases we have come across and there is hardly a case where a man can balance all the duties required in a polygamous situation . . . In today’s industrial society, it is impossible to observe the conditions laid down by the scriptures.” Polygamy, he points out, predates Islam and was permitted in Islam in the context of war to offer protection to war orphans and widows. Many of the Prophet’s 11 wives were widows.

Sara (not her real name) is a 40-year-old Muslim convert. She accepted the practice of polygamy as part of her religion and when she fell in love with a married man, she was the one who suggested that she become his second wife. “I was busy and studying. I felt I could cope with not having someone around all the time,” she tells me.

In reality, though, Sara now says, their marriage was more like a religiously sanctioned affair. “Because of the social taboos against [polygamy], it had to be secret from the community and I couldn’t have any children . . . because then it will be known that he has a second wife.” Although she met her husband’s first wife, going on holiday with her once and even offering to babysit her children, the first wife never fully accepted the situation. “I really had this idea that we somehow would eventually find some way of getting on . . . I was imagining it would be like these stories I have heard of where it works, so I thought it would just be a matter of time and we were destined to be together.” Eventually, after six years, Sara sought a divorce.

In his 25 years presiding over thousands of divorce cases at the Islamic Sharia Council, Mufti Barkatulla has heard many similar stories. Between 2010 and 2011, 43 out of the 700 applications for divorce to Leyton’s sharia council cited polygamy as the main reason.

Mufti Barkatulla and Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the former director of the Muslim Institute, devised a Muslim marriage contract – in effect, a religiously sanctioned prenup, to be signed at the time of the nikah, or religious ceremony – that sought to address the imbalance in Muslim marriages, giving women equal rights to divorce, allowing them to feel safe from rape or abuse, and preventing husbands from taking a second wife. It also states that the nikah must happen in conjunction with a civil ceremony, for extra protection.

He tells me the story of a woman whose husband “had agreed to a civil ceremony but because dates and everything were not agreed the husband kept on delaying it”. One day when she got home, she found a notice on the door: “Everything is over. Collect your things from my sister’s house.” The woman told him that she felt as though she had been “on trial” but eventually was discarded.

An estimated 70-75 per cent of Muslim marriages in the UK are not registered under the Marriage Act, unlike Christian and Jewish marriages, which are registered automatically. Mosques have the legal right to register to conduct civil weddings, but only about one in ten have chosen to do so. A nikah or Muslim marriage can be performed anywhere, even using proxies or on Skype. When a marriage is not registered and the relationship breaks down, the unregistered wife has no rights to spousal or child support and can even be left homeless, denied her due share. In the event of the husband’s death, the registered wife and her children will inherit and the unregistered wife and children will not.

If Muslim marriages are unregistered, and take place outside of the jurisdiction of this country, there is no automatic recourse to justice through the British courts. Instead, an aggrieved party must go to an unregulated sharia council for mediation. The crossbencher Baroness (Caroline) Cox is concerned by this clash between sharia and civil law. “There is now operating in this country a kind of parallel quasi-legal system and that goes against the fundamental principle of liberal democracy of one law for all.” Of polygamy, she says: “To have more than one wife is not acceptable in the UK and people . . . must accept the laws of the land they choose to live in.” In 2011, she introduced the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which had its second reading in the House of Lords last October and “would make it illegal for any person or contacts to be established which would operate as a kind of alternative legal system. Anyone purporting to operate in that way in a judicial capacity would actually be committing a criminal offence that could [be punished with] a prison sentence for this alternative legal system.” The bill will be re-tabled in the next Parliament. 

Khola Hasan of Leyton’s sharia council believes that forcing mosques to register all nikahs, and thereby banning polygamy, will only make Muslims feel more persecuted. “The Muslim community in Britain already feels victimised,” she says, and it will inevitably force the practice underground, leaving women more vulnerable. She argues that, rather than banning polygamy, which she views as a “solution to many complex and difficult situations”, the practice should in fact be recognised by British law.

According to the Singlemuslim.com poll, 61 per cent of Muslim men and 28 per cent of Muslim women agree with Hasan that British law should be changed to permit polygamy. “Britain is refusing to accept that polygamy takes place,” she says. “It’s a reality and I think the British legal system is going to have to open its eyes and accept that it’s a reality in Britain.

“Polygamy is not going to go away.”

“Jemima Khan and the Part-Time Wife” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 29 April