Friday, June 27, 2008

OPINION: Stirring the plot with polygamy

I was catching up on the latest news of my ancestral sport when I noticed that India had just won a cricket match in the Asia Cup. I wasn't surprised by India winning, but I was surprised by who they were playing.

Hong Kong? Playing cricket? Surely this was a misprint. Since when did people in Hong Kong play cricket?

But why should I be surprised? After all, Hong Kong was once a British colony. And one would expect that at least some traces of British culture would remain even after Hong Kong was handed back to China.

Just as one would expect some Muslim men to marry more than one wife. Listeners to Triple J's Hack current-affairs program may have been similarly surprised to learn that some Muslims want the right for Muslim men to marry more than one wife.

President of the self-styled Islamic Friendship Association Keysar Trad even told a broadsheet newspaper that he had made serious attempts at it. He's a brave man to admit this to a national newspaper.

To its credit, The Australian reported the story quite fairly, as did the Fairfax papers. The News Limited tabloids, meanwhile, accompanied their stories with pictures of women in black burqas in various positions some kneeling in submission and others taking a stroll (presumably indoors). Is this a case of Rupert Murdoch's tabloid minions keeping a certain Saudi prince (who owns at least a 7 per cent stake in News Corporation) happy?

Lakemba Sheik Khalil Chami, who I understand doubles as Muslim chaplain for the Australian Federal Police, has called for Australia's marriage laws to be amended. His concern is that there are Muslim men who engage in polygamous marriages "off the record". They have their first marriage registered while any subsequent wives are the subject of purely religious ceremonies. Until the relevant time elapses, these women don't even have the protection of state and territory laws governing de facto relationships.

Chami says he has been approached by men asking him to perform second and third marriages. He has refused, and says many men seeking multiple marriage partners are inspired by less-than-altruistic motives.

But what happens if there are altruistic motives? What happens when a man is prepared to marry a woman to provide her with some much-needed support and in a socially respectable manner?

For many Australians, such notions of social justice may seem unusual. After all, if you're a man who wants to support another woman, why do you need to marry her?

But then, as Uncle Sam (the comedic character from SBS TV's new chat show Salam Cafe) would say, "Vye not?" Especially when we are talking about societies where reputation is everything and where women are almost always expected to hold to higher levels of sexual ethics than men.

I know of one case in Melbourne where a man entered into a polygamous marriage. The man's existing wife had a close friend who had converted to Islam and was in some difficulties with her family. The first wife permitted, indeed encouraged, her husband to marry the woman as a favour to her friend.

The polygamous marriage consisted purely of a marriage ceremony, though they had enormous trouble finding an imam to perform it. The marriage wasn't registered and sadly didn't last long. If it did, the second wife would have eventually gained the status of a de facto partner under Victorian law.

What surprised me was the response of Muslims in Melbourne. It was unequivocal and swift. The family was ostracised. Many of my male friends invited to the wedding, including some very observant Muslims, refused to attend for fear of offending their wives.

Turks were particularly scathing. Melbourne's Muslim community is largely dominated by Turks and Cypriots. Polygamy is banned in Turkey. Unlike the ban on women wearing hijabs to university, the polygamy ban is indicative of Turkish social attitudes.

The verses from the Koran dealing with polygamy have been interpreted in various ways. They don't provide absolute permission for men to marry more than one wife. The most generous reading would provide for conditional consent for a man to marry up to four wives if he could provide for them equally. Jurists of Islamic sacred law have applied this strictly to effectively mean that a man who builds a house for one wife is expected to build houses of identical cost and quality for his other wives. Little wonder polygamy is the exception rather than the rule in most Muslim societies.

The social justice considerations behind polygamous marriage do not exist in Australia. Our social-security safety nets provide at least some coverage to single-parent families in financial crisis.

Nor do we see much evidence of demand for changes to marriage laws from Muslims, Mormons or followers of other faiths often associated with polygamy. When not even observant Muslims are clamouring for polygamy, our marriage laws should remain as they are.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and associate editor of This article was first published in the Canberra Times on Friday 27 June 2008.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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