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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?

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, 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 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

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.