Wednesday, November 23

Islamic Circles presents: CAN THE OBEDIENT WIVES CLUB (OWC) – aka THE POLYGAMY CLUB WORK IN THE UK? Click for more info

First things first: I am a monogamist, or at least as much a monogamist a single guy can hope to be. And not only am I a monogamist, I am strictly and actively so. I think it is impossible for me to ever be in love with more than one person let alone marry more than once, and I'd rather be alone than in a polygamous relationship. But it goes even further than this, since I'm also a temporal monogamist; I'm one woman for life and only plan on falling in love the one time. It's possibly unrealistic and most certainly pathetic but it's my take on monogamy more than anything else (including my religion) that explains why, for example, that I've never been interested in any kind of casual relationship with a girl - it'd feel too much like cheating - and I'm always puzzled by how some guys get turned on by the idea of multiple women at the same time. I'd even be as lofty to say that to even remarry would be a big deal for me and that I probably wouldn't unless for obviously practical reasons. So yes, I'm definitely in the "lobster" camp; what's more is that ironically this obsession with monogamy is probably one of the biggest reasons why I'm not married yet - but that's for another post.

Hopefully that is enough of a pre-emptive and defensive introduction to convince even the most cynical (read: feminist) of you that this post isn't about any personal fantasy or desire of mine.

Personally, my reason for attending a talk like this one was because it's finally something different from the usual run-of-the-mill Islamic lectures that have almost dominated the social scene of outgoing Muslims (and my poor inbox) during the past ten years. It wasn't about abstract topics like Tawheed or Aqeedah (things I don't think can necessary be prescribed anyway), it wasn't the instructional stuff you're probably better off reading about in a book and neither was it jumping on a passing bandwagon (I'm looking at you Islamic Finance and Green Islam). Unlike other lectures it hasn't been designed to be summarised in a Facebook status update, or to be tagged with the name of some rockstar imam I can't even pronounce the name of. But, again, my bitter cynicism toward Islamic academia is probably something for another post.

No, this is a topic that's largely been unexplored, at least in an open-minded and impartial way, isn't fashionable (yet) and may even be more practical and relevant than the knowledge currently being sought elsewhere. In fact, I'll even say I didn't really attend as Muslim tonight (you know what I mean), and I was genuinely interested in the personal story of those we had come to see. Congratulations to Mizan and Islamic Circles for being so innovative and brave.

Despite my personal take on the issue, there's no question about it: polygamy is hot right now. Apparently on the increase in British born Asians (although the article doesn't explain what it means by "polygamous relationship", or how it compares to the number of open or unfaithful marriages in other demographics), and not, as many may like to assume, always at the insistence of the man in the relationship. Considering the often lamented loser-to-men ratio, the alleged statistic that there are far more decent women than decent men and finally how there seems to be a bit of a marriage crisis for single Muslim women nowadays, the idea of polygamy has finally gathered enough mindshare for at least the initial debate to begin - and that in a more sophisticated way than it may otherwise have been handled.

So we had a triple - a husband with his two wives, naturally - giving their experiences and insight into the issue at hand. They only spoke for ten minutes in total before the floor was opened for questions; a genius move on the parts of the organisers. During the Q&A we learned how Global Ikhwan were not polyagmists by default and how only a small subsection actually participated in the practise. We were given a bit of a background of the various clubs formed - by my understanding there are actually two separate ones serving two separate purposes: The Obedient Wives' Club and The Polygamy Club. The latter was a support group for those in polygamous relationships, whereas the the former was one promoting a particular way in which to be a good wife. The choice of name is possibly unfortunate, especially in a climate where obedience is a weak and bad thing. I do agree with the argument that an Obedient and Responsible Husbands' Club is also desperately required and I'd probably wouldn't mind joining something like that myself.

Mohammad Ali was the husband with the two wives. He explained how it wasn't him who chose polygamy but that he and his second bride were picked by his community for a wider purpose. We were told how all parties including him, his existing wife and his new bride all went through training and counselling to prepare for the change, and, ultimately, how polygamy was about choice, justice and morality and not control, lust or misogyny. Indeed, the three were here to share their lives, not convince, convert or recruit anyone to their cause.

For me the most interesting of the three was the first wife. Highly educated, she was the most comfortable of the three with speaking in English. She explained how polygamy liberated her from the impossible position she had previously placed herself in, wanting to have a career as well as look after the home and children. She said she found that she had the time and energy to focus on the things that made her happy once she was secure in the knowledge her husband and home were being looked after.

The second wife was much quieter but still had a presence in the triple. My question was to ask about the relationship between the two wives and how they considered each other and after rephrasing it to sound less kinky (that wasn't intentional, I swear), they said how it was almost like a sibling relationship. And as I watched them throughout the night this affection was quite obvious as they shared in-jokes and demonstrated a tactile level of body language. They were clearly at the very least good friends.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a lot of cynicism shot out from the audience. I think that much was fair enough - Mohammad Ali and his wives were probably prepared for a hostile crowd - but it was still a little disheartening and even embarrassing at times. There were what I can only describe as haters present, people only there to cause hassle, demonstrate close-mindedness, or just to look good in front of the other women in that faux-feminist way some guys have. Especially amusing were the couple of girls getting emotional over a comment the first wife made about how women are prone to becoming emotional. I'm pretty certain they didn't see the irony in their reaction.

Particularly disappointing was Abdul-Rehman Malik of Radical Middle Way fame. His input was to ask random questions about group sex and anti-Semitism, which if I was a cynical chap could only describe as blatant attempts at discrediting the personalities present rather than discuss the issue at hand. He himself didn't even bother to listen to the replies to his question as he tapped on his Blackberry.

Overall, the lack of etiquette by the audience (some even left as the three were making their closing statements) was a little disappointing and ironic considering how most were complaining about the lack of respect demonstrated by polygamous men by default. I wondered how many of the people throwing tomatoes were as ethical and honest in their monogamous relationships as the three on the panel were, or how they would have behaved in a talk about relationship types sanctioned-by-the-west like casual ones, homosexuality or those of mixed faiths. The media was also present in full force; I expect the BBC to report on the topic in their unique and authoritatively misinformed and inaccurate style (EDIT: and here it is. Sigh).

On the other hand we did have some genuinely curious questions and interest from the audience too, as well as the cheeky, including one regarding the challenge of having two mother in laws. My favourite was how one guy juxtaposed the distaste we were supposed to have for Islamic polygamy with the acceptance and championing of the right for men and women in the west to cheat in their marriages or be casual and promiscuous. According to him, Islam was backwards by expecting the husband to be responsible for and honest toward his multiple relationships as opposed to the western idea of the more independent and self-serving toward a partner the better. I suspect his point was as lost on the audience as it was on Mohammad Ali though.

Most encouraging however was a young female college student, adamantly against the concept before the talk started but afterwards much more accepting of it as a choice and even solution to bring happiness to certain individuals. She explained that it still wasn't for her, but that she was now able to accept and even understand why it would be the choice for others in certain situations. In that sense the triple were pretty successful in spreading awareness and understanding.

The main issue of contention for some was the doubt over a person's ability to treat more than one wife with justice. The answer to my question, about how the wives saw each other as siblings, got me thinking about the situation where a parent (single or otherwise) has more than one child, and how in that case we would embrace and even encourage the challenge of sharing our love and being just between people with equal rights to that love and justice. And yet we pour scorn and incredulity on a person who chooses to do the same with two spouses. If we think about it, the issues are largely the same if you consider a marriage where the man and woman have defined (that is different but justly divided) statuses. Of course if a couple decide to have a more "literally" equal marriage then I would say polygamy wouldn't really work for them, and they would probably be wise not to practise it. In that sense, this debate wasn't really about having multiple partners, but more about the respective position of a husband and wife (regardless of the number), and the nature of relationship between them and whether traditional and well defined marriages, even the monogamous ones, can ever be considered fair or just.

For those who cry foul at the disparity of this choice and say that men should refuse polygamy on the grounds that it's a facility unavailable to their wives - I'm not sure negative play is the best tactic in any discussion. Almost by virtue of them being so well defined, Islamic marriages are always going to have a disparity between the man and the woman who choose to partake in them, and to deny this particular right would be like relieving a man obligation to provide for his family - an obligation that the woman doesn't have. To be fair some couples do modify these rights, and that's fair enough if done in agreement and consistency. But generally if we accept an Islamic marriage to be just and fair, then we have to accept all the rights available to both parties are too, no matter how exclusive they happen to be. On a secular level I would absolutely agree that there is no reason why women shouldn't be allowed to marry more than once, and such statuses do actually exist in other parts of society.

But as with all rights and facilities, abuse does occur. And yes, there are a lot of douchebag men out there. But I suspect that there are more douchebag monogamists than douchebag polygamists; a douche doesn't become a douche once he chooses a particular opinion and neither will all douches want the same things. In short the bad qualities most people say manifest themselves in a polygamist - so a lack of character, fickleness, no sense of justice - would probably all be present even if you restricted them to monogamy, since it's certainly possible to be unjust and uncaring toward a single wife too. And even a fantastic guy might not be able to handle more than one wife - the chances are that he wouldn't want to anyway.

I'm often told how relationships and marriages have evolved, and how their nature has moved from that of the practical and well defined to a more loose and flexible "organic" one. In the Muslim community self-determined, causal and non-committal relationships are now more acceptable and even expected and encouraged as a natural consequence of progress, when before they would have been resisted and unheard of. And as we continue to evolve and change who we as individuals are, I suspect the same will happen with polygamy. As well as solving the quite real numbers issues - is half a great guy really worse than a whole loser or not being married at all? - it could also be a solution for the increasing number of independent woman who wish to marry but also, like the first wife today, to be free of certain expectations and pressures in order to allow her to focus on her own things.

If consenting adults can pull it off then you can't really do anything but praise God for allowing it to happen. As the polygamists repeatedly mentioned, their relationship - like many monogamous relationships - was mainly for the pleasure of God and they felt that the fact that they found success in it was an indication of God sending his blessings upon them. And regardless of how religious you are that's the real point here: in the face of countless accusations of polygamists being backwards or the wives in them repressed - accusations laden with ever helpful baggage and preconceptions of the accusers themselves - their specific relationship was anything but sleazy or temporary, but rather quite long term, well-founded and full of love; certainly more so than many of the monogamous marriages we come across in life.

And like all loving relationships that's something that can in no way ever be criticised or seen as a bad thing. If I ever get married and my monogamous relationship is as happy, stable and content as the one I saw tonight, well I'd be nothing but pleased and thankful for what I have.

7 comments:

  1. shame about the trolls in the crowd, to be expected though I guess.

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  2. Mash,

    I think a lot of the interesting stuff around this topic will not be how a polygamous marriage would or should work, but how it would be accepted in mainstream UK society or even by people (mainly women, but men also) for themselves who didn't before.

    In that respect the audience reaction before, during and after was actually quite telling. But yes, there'll always be someone who won't stand to see others happy in a different way.

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  3. thanks for writing this up.

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  4. N/mon/ad12:09

    What a superb review! I wish I was there.

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  5. I work in Canary Wharf, can't believe I missed this. Great review, very thought provoking.

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  6. Hi Siamah,

    Actually, the event was in the Holborn area. I don't think IC would have found the right audience in Canary Wharf :).

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