End Polygamy in Pakistan

By Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari

(Courtesy Daily Times)

An estimated 17 percent of all families in Pakistan are associated with polygamy in their primary relationships. This means that as many as one-fifth of our population lives in an arrangement of compromise, most likely to take up a share of resources and pieces of the emotional pie that have come to them at a social cost

In her masterpiece, Scheherazade Goes West, Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan Islamic scholar, draws the reader into a history of how the western imagination of eastern harems emerged. The fantasy world of one man, engulfed by many houris in a Turkish bath has often found its roots in the paintings of a notable western artist’s depictions of the Arabian East. As men divide themselves among many, they become a scarce commodity, increasing their demand. Women, meanwhile, have not much to opine about, but to shut up and look pretty, presumably enjoying their subservient secondary role in a misogynist and male chauvinistic society as depicted in this oriental’s artistic imaginings.

Women in our recent history from the East defied this concept and created art that was a more realistic portrait of women. Closer to home, Nur Jahan from the Mughal era commissioned portraits of herself and of women on horses and elephants, in the midst of romance, seemingly more powerful than they would be in a herd. Islam, Mernissi says, empowered more women as it carved its empires onto the map of the world, conquering and ruling with women, not on them.

We seem to be moving in diametrically opposite directions simultaneously. On the one hand we have women like Asma Jahangir becoming the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and, on the other, women choosing to become nothing but a second wife to a man.

It has been difficult to miss the recent media frenzy over the man who married, on the same day, two of his cousins, both whom he claims to love. Undoubtedly, love has its dark side, but this is a travesty of love itself. What is worse is that both women in this irrational matrimony solemnly swear to be tied to the sanctity of the marriage institution with equal devotion. Suppose they were to feel that everything will be shared in a set proportion, but is it possible to divide affections? Sooner or later, one of the members of this closely knit family will forget their place.

An estimated 17 percent of all families in Pakistan are associated with polygamy in their primary relationships. This means that as many as one-fifth of our population lives in an arrangement of compromise, most likely to take up a share of resources and pieces of the emotional pie that have come to them at a social cost. These strains in relationships have an economic stress on the system as well. Everything gets sliced up into two, sometimes three and even four parts. The erroneous concept that a good Muslim can marry up to four times is more a popular folklore than reality, but as a result there are a few adventurers that actually take the plunge into those harem dreams — only to find more responsibility at the end of the line-up.

But where do these dreams get manufactured? The media is, for a start, one place. Although one expects the entertainment media to use the polygamous cousin as fodder, the fact that it has captured the imagination of serious talk show hosts shows just how right of centre and sick our society is. One talk show host could not wipe the smirk off his face throughout his show. Two brides, who sat on either side of the man, with no-holds-barred makeup on overkill, were sitting pretty like goats being brought for ritualistic Eid slaughter. The questions were: this is every man’s dream, what is it like? Which of the two do you like better? How did you get the women to agree? How do you manage to keep them content? He asked the ladies: do you not despise one another? Do you two ever fight? Which of you is a better cook?

Polygamy can be entertaining. There is a successful television serial, starring Bill Paxton no less and produced by Tom Hanks, on the life of a Mormon polygamist in the US. Polygamy is a way of life for a lot of people, as outlined above, but it is time we look at it as the social perversion that it is and recognise that it is an institutionalised mechanism of denying a lot of people their rights under the law. A majority of these marriages happen in the guise of the oppression of women. Often, against the will of the first wife and even more often, though not acknowledged, under the limited or denied rights of the secondary wife.

Probably, the only progressive piece of legislation in our sordid history, the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961, drafted by Allama Pervez, Pakistan’s rationalist Muslim scholar par excellence, is not silent on this. “No man under the subsistence of any marriage, shall (except with the previous permission in writing of the Arbitration Council) contract another marriage, nor shall any such marriage contracted without such permission be registered under this ordinance.” Similarly, the permissions are clearly to a) include a written acceptance from the first wife, and b) state a valid reason for the second marriage. Thereafter, and only if, this is accepted by the Arbitration Council, which is nominated by the wife or wives and husband, is the marriage to go ahead. Yet women are pathetically ignorant of their own rights under the law. Even more disappointing are our religious lot who choose to follow the ridiculous fatwas (decrees) from Darul Uloom Deoband over this piece of legislation, which goes a long way in establishing the rights of Pakistani women.

Therefore, it is not a foolproof system to begin with because there is room for manipulation, but democratic in spirit nonetheless. It must be known that polygamy is not only frowned upon by the law, but on many counts it violates the basic law of nature, distribution of property to legal heirs and has been known to break many hearts. We must now strive towards a secular civil code in Pakistan, derived from rational thought and common sense. It is about time that we abolished canonical laws altogether and strove instead for secular equality for men and women.

It is time for the Scheherazades of Pakistan to know their rights, and to stand up for them.

The writer is based in Lahore and blogs at https://pakteahouse.wordpress.com.


Filed under Pakistan

26 responses to “End Polygamy in Pakistan

  1. Anwar

    I agree with the primary thesis of the article – while it will be difficult to eliminate, polygamy under coercion can be outlawed as a first step.
    I am also curious about the 17% number – it is rather high.

  2. Mustafa

    I heard 0.01% of pashtuns are polygamous, some western analysts say that polygamy in Pakistan and muslim world is in a much smaller fraction (from what I remember some said 0.01% or 0.1%). Also I dont beleive polygamy is the problem. Its the misuse of polygamy in Islam. Islam permits marraiage to more than one wife under extremely strict rules and circumstances such that you can only marry more than one wife only if it is extremely necessary which almost all the time its not, which is why it is practiced so little contrary to what the author has us believe. Unfortunately our ”liberals” in this nation and on this blog like the author see a problem, instead of understanding it and the different ways it can be dealt with just pass radical judgements. Islam has already given provision for womens rights and fair treatment of women especially when it comes to polygamy, its just that its not enforced. The problem like Sheikh Tahir Ul Qadri is not of laws, but abscence of justice and enforcement of laws. I suggest people on this blog including the writer to please fully educate yourself on the laws of Islam and make an effort to explore all avenues and possible solutions. These things matter on circumstances. Misuse needs to be stopped.
    Unfortunately this can also be interpreted as an attack on Islam as the author refers to this Islamic law as ridiculous and against common sense. And even if the writer does not mean it, it looks like she is attacking Islam.

    Also there is a contadiction on this blog, the liberals call for ”rationality” and ”common sense” but the thing is that rationality for such problems is within Islam and the liberals themselves start offering radical and aggresive measures and solutions to deal with the problem. It is these very people who do very little homework and in result thier analysis itself lacks rationality and understanding.

    The debate of Islam and Secularism is secondary , this debate is useless if the primary root cause is not discussed and that is enforcement of law, rule of law and access to justice which in reality is the real cause behind all the problems in Pakistan and in the world , religious or not religious.

    To briefly point out the importance of polygamy in Islam , I will refer to some cases where it is necessary. In WW1 and WW2 and in wars many women are left alone and unprotected, and some of them become mistresses and tools of men with no rights for them or thier children whatsoeveer, over here polygamy can play a role. This is just one of the many ways in which polygamy may be necessary. If you study Islam you can find other reasons why it is needed.

  3. Asad Liaqat

    I am also a little skeptic about the 17% figure. Does this figure of those ‘associated’ with polygamy include those who are not in a polygamous relationship themselves, but one of their primary relations (brother, sister, father, mother, maybe even grandparents) is? When you say that as much as one-fifth of our population lives in compromise, this could mean either (a) that one-fifth of our population lives in a polygamous relationship, or (b) that one-fifth of our population is closely related to those who live in a polygamous relationship.

    These two do not mean the same thing. I am very sympathetic to your argument, but I do believe that good arguments require sound evidence. I would be grateful if you could explain where this figure comes from and what it means.

  4. Polygamy was allowed in the early days of Islam as many men were martyred in the wars with the Meccans. Islam encourages polygamy to accommodate widows and divorcees for their protection in the society and not for the fun of marrying. And even there is a caution of equal treatment.

    In Arab countries people marry to have four wives mostly as a status symbol. While serving in Saudi Arabia, one of many of our colleague confided that the wives of a man having four wives ridicule the wife or wives of the one who has lesser than four for being poor or unmanly to afford four wives.

    As for the 17% figure, I have all my doubts about the accuracy of this figure as there is a very minor percentage who have even two wives, what to talk of more than two. If I look around in my own family, I find none and mostly it is so. Therefore this figure is seems grossly inaccurate. While I am not in favour of polygamy, I fail to understand why a need has been felt to end polygamy in Pakistan through this rather “alarming” post?

  5. NAB

    There are discusions that polygamy should be stoped and there are that it should be allowed or even promoted!
    Well a detailed and unbiased debate may be needed to see all the pros and cons of this practice.
    The number 17% is definitely unrealistic (unless proven with storng evidence), but nevertheless, if all the the cocerned parties including women, are ok with that then the outsider cannot say much about that.
    Also the following should be kept in mind in try to debate this matter:

    1- Man’s Nature
    2- Needs of men and women – their responibilities on different stages – as boys/girls, as a couple – a fathers and mothers, as living away from each other (temporarily or ..)- as singles or igle parants etc.
    3- Numeric balance of men and women
    4- What is the situation where it is practised (e.g. if people are happier or better off or more family oriented or close to each other)
    5- Has it everbeen succesfully stopped in any land? And what is the situation where it is prohibited by law (e.g. above said examples plus, if it is bringing more sincerety in realtions, or if it causes extra marital relationhips – and if it may increase prostitution – pubs – etc and if that may lead to persuite of pampering just bodies. Would all that play any role in promoting gambling, drinking, gayhood, pornography, disease (Aids, Gonoreah etc) and worst of all tensions in family especially in children.
    6- Apart from need and common sense – religion is also a main law or bahaviour making force – what all the religions epecially of the majority say about this subject.
    7- What is the history of this issue – how different people have faced it.
    8- If successful men including kings and Prophets, practised that and if there was any role of this in their lives and success!
    9- And before you forward any thought – if you are unbiased?

  6. Asad Liaqat

    NAB, your own comment betrays your own biases. Pretty strongly, actually.

  7. amaar

    @ayesha sarwari

    I beg to disagree with you. Islam’s provisions for polygamy are to resolve certain social problems (e.g. welfare of widows/orphans and prevention of adultery) instead being a prescribed form of social structure.

    Firstly, polygamy is not as widely practised to become a social problem in itself (i.e. by leading to more unmarried men).

    Secondly, in (normative) Islam, the premise for polygamy is resolution of social problems rather than as a gratification of male ego.

    It may be a bitter pill but is perhaps the only alternative to out-of-wedlock children, illegtimate relationships and stress on the social fabric etc. By establishing full and equal rights, at least all the wives have a life/financial support of their own (in the normative sense) and none of the women is threatened with a possibility of being hung high and dry (i.e. being divorced at the sake of the other).

    Now I agree that it is impossible to equally distribute affection and some men will indeed tilt towards one at the expense of the other. But imagine the alternative: they could have simply let go of their less favored woman (or cheated on them). Pick your poison? Cheating/divorcing a wife or giving her a reduced portion of emotional/financial support.

    Laws can be framed to cushion the emotional blow to the first woman (e.g. a sufficient Haq mehr (dower) etc. that increases if a man marries another woman).

    But I am afraid, from a practical perspective, the alternative to polygamy is
    way worse

  8. Sai

    your objectivity and openmindedness on this issue is admirable.
    just wondering…would you be similarly open about polyandry as well?

  9. Fellow-Pakistani


    They may legalize polygamy in Russia. The women are asking for it.
    “the reasons why men – and, even more interestingly, women – are advocating polygamy in Russia and Mongolia are as much about economics as they are about sex. The critical issue is demography. The Russian population is falling by 3% a year – and there are 9 million fewer men than women. Nationalists, such as the eccentric leader of the Liberal Democratic party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claim that introducing polygamy will provide husbands for “10 million lonely women” and fill Mother Russia’s cradles.

    Elsewhere, in the former Islamic regions of Russia, men argue that polygamous marriage is traditional and will encourage men to take greater responsibility – thereby alleviating poverty and improving “moral” education.

    Improbably, for both groups, this is polygamy as a solution to contemporary social ills – and, according to Humphrey, is appearing outside Islamic regions. In rural areas the “man shortage”, exacerbated by war, alcoholism and mass economic migration, is even more serious. But when it comes to polygamy, rural women have a quite different agenda from their nationalist male counterparts.

    “A lot of women live on what were collective farms, which are often deep in the forest and miles away from the nearest town,” Humphrey says. “You live very close to nature, and life can be very hard – your heating is entirely through log stoves, there’s no running water and inside sanitation is rare. If you are lucky enough to keep animals, you must care for and butcher them yourself. So if you are looking after children as well, life can be near impossible for a woman on her own.”

    Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Humphrey’s investigations have uncovered women who believe that “half a good man is better than none at all”. “There are still some men around – they might be running things, with a job as an official, for example, or they might be doing an ordinary labouring job, but either way, there aren’t very many of them,” she says. “Women say that the legalisation of polygamy would be a godsend: it would give them rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits.”

    Legalising polygamy has been repeatedly proposed and discussed in the Russian Duma, or parliament – and always turned down. For the urbanites of Moscow and St Petersburg it is a step too far.

    In Mongolia, too, the legalisation of polygamous marriage is anathema. Yet in Ulan Bator, the thrusting capital city, well-educated women are combining traditional and modern to create something that looks suspiciously like a form of polygamy.

    Surprisingly, it starts with the dowry. Eschewing the traditional gifts (horses, cushions, clothes), successful Mongolian families are increasingly giving their daughters a good education in place of a dowry. In contrast, their brothers often have to leave school early to either manage the herds or run the family business.

    “In Mongolian culture, the bride’s family are the senior family; and a bride should be clever. And they had 70 years of communism, so the idea that women should be well-educated is not new,” Humphrey explains. “Since Mongolia, in common with Russia, also has a problem with alcoholism, there is an imbalance between urban educated women and the number of men these educated women deem to be suitable husband-material.”

    The solution is simple: they just don’t get married. Instead, they take what is known as a “secret lover” – usually a well-educated man who just happens to be married to someone else. Any children resulting from the union are brought up by their mother and the maternal family.

    “It is completely accepted. These women are among the elite of Mongolian society – they might be a member of parliament or a director of a company and they are tremendously admired,” Humphrey says. “They would be horrified by the idea of polygamous marriage because they don’t want to risk their independence.”

    So what does this mean for marital relations in Russia and central Asia? Humphrey says it’s unlikely that polygamous marriage will ever be legalised in Russia – but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

    “An insufficiency of men, educated women who want to realise themselves, rural women who want to protect themselves, all these things are going to give rise to arrangements like polygyny,” says Humphrey, “whether it’s called that or not.”

  10. Fellow-Pakistani

    “‘Half a good man is better than none at all’A study of polygamy in Russia suggests we have a lot to learn about how to beat the recession”
    Mira Katbamna
    The Guardian,
    Tuesday 27 October 2009

  11. Fellow-Pakistani

    November 26, 2010 at 1:46 am
    “just wondering…would you be similarly open about polyandry as well?”

    Sai, polygyny solves the problem in society. Where as polyandry increases the problems in society, and takes society very close to ‘society of prostitutes’.

  12. In Tibet (and once upon a time in our original CHItral polyandry) is practiced very successfully. It has advantages. Saves time on foreplay.
    If it were LegaliZZZZZZZed in Pakistan, the genetics (not DNAs) of our art criticism will improve (now art critics have to assume fake names here to be honest and hide their actual paternal identities). Suppose, there is my Government College classmate SH(H!). He knows who really-really fathered him; being honest-to-goodness (which is holy doyenne is naught) he need not economically pseudo-concise himself as “The Art Critic”. He can proudly peacock around by his mother’s family-name.

    Besides, the best girls are often already-married. This would provide Equal Opportunity to one and all, across the board and prove to be the nascent bedrock of Fairness. I will , instinctively, vote for polyandry! I must acknowledge my abiding respect for our combined Prime Munster and the PP-P (as the dry-cleaned ‘The Fountain’ of Roti, KapRAW and MooCan).

    Less humorously, I feel that while Polygamyyyy (don’t jump to con-clusions, this is no typo, it is my invention of the day!) need not be abolished, law may prescribe that anyone indulging that must treat them Equally financially and otherwise. The First Wife is delegated an automatic right to inflict Divorce (as soon as, e.g., her sexy efforts to locate/accommodate a better husband fructify)! Not an easy task, if one were married to
    Mrs Simply Good and Katrina Coffee, simultaneously. MulLAWS onthetaketake can jihad (in the sense of making juicy efforts) like that.

    My email account <> has been highjacked by some quack in London… I cannot open it and find ought how miserable I am living in a 5-Star Hotel (my creditcards and all RESOURCES haVING BEEN STOLEN … THIS REMINDS ME, en passant, THAT i OPENED A sWISS bANK aCCOUNT IN 1953 WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE sTATE bANK OF pAKISTAN) in Westend while I am actually WRAUGHTING in Lawhore.

    PS4: I will argue a Writ at 2pm in Lahore High Court (Before Lord Justice
    Omer Atta Bandial) on LacKKK of Equal Opportunity in Pakistan (mentioning why I declined to be elevated to Pakistan Supreme Court in 1980 although .. and in fact because .. I was highly recommended from three Continents. I want chanGeover, where every high position is filled on merit sans (it means ‘without’ , I translate for the illiteratti) networking or neo-TC (Turf Control). It is a miniscule minority that wroughts changE, not the herd of moneygrabbers and cabals of mustard-bosstards. Anyone can attend. It is free.

    On 2nd December, Deo Volente, I argue my [1998 Writ] against the Degree Mills in Pakistan. Of course, as VICE Chancellor, my hat is off to The Iqbal Geoffrey University of Art Criticism, the world’s most exclusive University (Dont Call Us, We will Call You!!)

    (Those who object to my English should suck an egg daily and it will improve their perception of it by the nanosecond, sua sponte! I Luck Them as wsell as Que Sera Sera Syndrome!!)


  14. Another cliched article on polygamy. Who says it is a male dominated society? Peep any house, look anywhere, it is woman that has a SAY man does not. Man only talks the first day, then listens the whole life. And we are told, this is a male dominant society.

    If at all, females are trodden under injustice, why do they say Yes three times and live like a second horse in the carriage all their lives. This is not a religious issue, this is not social and economical issue either. Germany did not validate polygamy after two great wars when males were reduced to one third to female germans. This is another issue that marriages and divorces span had/have ranging from one month to hardly four years. “Married with children” is so common in West.

    I think the learned authoress has penned down this article as a fashion like many other female writers do. In reality, it is woman that has more power than man. Polygamy is women’s problem, if they decide against it, nobody can force them. 50% cases in cardio-vascular hospitals are of those males that are victims of polygamy.

    There is a bigger problem in the society – Misyar Marriage. Today, it is confined in Arab countries, tomorrow it would reach other Islamic countries of the world. I think Misyar marriage (vacational marriage) is a legalized form of prostituion to the utter degredation of Muslim women. I want to hear on this topic from the learned authoress.

  15. Mustafa

    Interestingly as some pointed out, polygamy has been talked about in Russia and Mongolia and the West. Also the women promoting polygamy in the West are die hard feminists who fight for womens rights, many of them are saying that it should be an option.

  16. I agree with the primary thesis of the article – while it will be difficult to eliminate, polygamy under coercion can be outlawed as a first step.
    I am also curious about the 17% number – it is rather high.

  17. krash

    Whether we like it or not, people have a right to practice their religion.

  18. NAB

    @ Asad Liaquat:
    Well I belive being “Unbiased” means you are do not run away from known facts! And yes at present I am tilted towards the facts that are already present. And I am ready to accept facts and factual arguements, for or against, if you or any other presents!

  19. Tilsim

    One needs morality and integrity to be a Muslim. It’s not clear to me how a Muslim man can have confidence that by marrying several wives at once, he is giving them equally fair treatment (which is the standard required). The many stories we hear is that people don’t ask permission from their first wife to marry again; one wife is a favourite; the first wife feels hard done by; it causes economic hardship on the family; siblings from the two wives feud. It does not seem to me that the principles of equitable treatment are achieved. In fact the stress in Islam is that having one wife and giving her good treatment is the best ideal.

    It seems to me that this allowance for more than one wife is a practical concession to the life and times of the prophet.

  20. Prasad

    Men who indulge in multiple wives are Bas****….with no soul. When majority think religion permits it…god only forgive the society..how do you treat them with logic when they attack innocent people citing 72 virgins!!!!

  21. pankaj

    @ Tilsim

    I believe that men are polygamous by nature .And in other cultures and other countries too both in East and West men do cheat on their wives and look for other women just for short term affairs

    Basically any man with a fair amount of wealth will try for more women

    At least in Islam there is no hide and seek .The man can bring his second wife home

  22. Tilsim

    “At least in Islam there is no hide and seek .The man can bring his second wife home”

    I hear those arguments but I am not convinced that they represent the Islamic ideal. Man’s nature is Man’s nature but religion is supposed to act as a restraint on it. If a wife feels hard done by, a Muslim man should find that of much greater concern and that concern should trump the urge of his private parts to take another wife. In reality, people’s morals and integrity are not strong so they use different arguments to justify their behaviour. Marriage protects the mistress and any children that may come from it but it does not protect the first wife from unfair treatment or emotional distress.

  23. Fellow-Pakistani

    Ever heard: Pursuit of happiness?????

    Aurat Hee Aurat Ki Dushman Hay.
    (Woman is enemy of a woman). ;)))

  24. NAB

    (Let me put an example) some one asked me
    “My wife is having some health issues plus she is more happier with her role as a mother of two kids we have, than as as a wife”, what should I tell him?
    He also added, ‘My wife is ok if I marry to some one else, rather than I go to a some other woman’. I ask him to be ‘man’ and be patient and stick to the wife you already have., society does not like to have more than 1 wife. Thsi is been for two years now. And he again said , ‘My home life is very much disturbed, I cannot really show love and attention to me family or now even to my work, because when I go home, my wife does not welcome me, I am feeling no charm to stay at home. And now I am bound to understand that my God is Merciful so if He has granted me the permission to marry more than once then why should I deprive myself from that blessing….just to appease the society around me? Many good men, even Prophets married more than once so why should I be doubtful”.
    Its getting hard for me to argue with him…Can someone tell me what I should tell him?

  25. Salman Memon

    Being a Muslim, how can you argue against polygamy knowing that Allah has allowed a man 4 wives. You can not possibly be suggesting that we should BAN something which Allah has allowed for us?

    Indeed, the All Mighty knows best!!!


    Polygamy should not be abolished in Pakistan. It will invidiously upset many sex-as-therapy gigloes/volunteers and khansammas (both economically and otherwise!) who enjoy its drip and side effects. For example when you take up your Secretary or hook some younger maid(en) as second or third wife (wives), the earlier one/s , to avenge lack of EO, fertilize with their cooks, boys fridays and cozzy-causy with their car-chauffeurs as engines for retribution and having a tete-a-tete with tits for that .

    And while I have yet to obtain my BArtCrit degree from The Syyed Iqbal Geoffrey University, I don’t want to share the credit for my writing (even if, with the grace of God, it may emit subliminal collocations of Geoffrey’s imprint – – perr kithar RamRam and khidher (maein!) tyenn-tyenn!) with anyone .. knowing that this RoyalAcademnyofArtists e-mail address is shared by over 40 thousand cream of the tops … linguists, artists and scholars.
    Did someone from PTH hear Barrister Syyedna I. Jafree Sahib at Lahore High Court this week ably arguing against proliferating degree Mills (Justice Ijaz Ahmjed); or for EO (Justice Bandial Ji) .. they must have noticed how the law officers cut a sorry image and meekly meow-meow for more time.

    Other lawyers should exit their Indifference and boldly should take up p.i.l. in stead of poohpooing their own sense of decency by mudslinging and phonecalling. That aggravates rather than solve problems. Folks, WikiLeaks, et al, Pakistan is being washed out by scoundrels and crooks on the take with “respectable” fronts. Read the back-page of the last Friday’s issue of the Friday Times. Muzaffargarh-Mohtrima’s father used to run after along with the dogs with PWD officials automobiles in 1947-52. Now she cannot comfortably release herself except in Harrods washrooms. In stead of taking the bull by the horn, scurrilously BSing about good-people only boomerangs. Nolw all Art Critics and Burst Typres seem to have dutifully disappeared into thin air. I ask they wake up vis-a-vis what is being done to Pakistan … folks! it is uncleanly being wiped out.

    Back to the boondocks : Three cheers for polygamy!