Malaysia: Stress, quarrels and neglect: the 'normal' polygamous family

Open Democracy

A large-scale study currently underway across Malaysia uncovers proof that polygamy harms everyone involved: from emotionally scarred children, to wives who think they’d be better off as single-parent households, and even husbands who admit “I wouldn’t recommend it for my son; it’s quite stressful.”

When Malaysian women’s rights organisation Sisters in Islam [1] (SIS) argued that polygamy causes social problems and has a negative emotional impact, leading figures of the Islamic establishment in Malaysia would ask, “What proof do you have?”. When SIS cited cases of women who had approached the organisation for legal services or support, the rejoinder was “That’s only isolated cases” or “When it’s properly practiced, polygamy can create harmonious family life.”

To provide concrete data to support its anecdotal evidence about the impact of polygamy, in late 2007 SIS launched an ambitious research project whose findings are now beginning to come in. Working with academics from three universities, the research has completed about 1,500 qualitative and quantitative questionnaires from across all 12 states of peninsular Malaysia, along with dozens of in-depth interviews. The SIS research may make a significant contribution to global analysis of polygamy because unlike most studies which focus on the impact on wives, this study is also interviewing husbands and children.

Under pressure from Islamic neo-conservatives who have a highly patriarchal view of gender and marital relations, Malaysia’s law on polygamy which was once considered among the most rights-protecting for women, has been significantly relaxed. The 1984 federal Islamic Family Law had five conditions a Muslim man had to fulfil before he could take another wife: that he had the financial means; could guarantee equal treatment of the wives; no harm would be caused to the existing wife/wives; the additional marriage was “just and necessary”; and that the proposed marriage should not directly or indirectly lower the existing wife and dependants’ standard of living.

In 1996, the last condition was deleted and in 2004 “just and necessary” was amended to “just or necessary”. This removed the Qur’anic requirement of justice and fairness, and since ‘necessary’ was not defined in law in Malaysia’s increasingly Islamised atmosphere many men found it easier to obtain permission for a polygamous marriage and exploit legal loopholes without fear of legal or social rebuke. The impact of this shift remains anecdotal since the research found that the Religious Department’s records for 1993-2007 are very uneven. Whether or not actual numbers of polygamous marriages have increased in recent decades, there has been a noticeable normalising of the practice. Many conservative Malay-Muslim politicians ironically claim they have women’s needs at heart, saying: “In the modern context, there are more and more educated, professional women who remain unmarried so we should encourage polygamy”.

Preliminary findings from the SIS research show that many children of first wives report a strong negative emotional impact. Most reported neglect from the father once he got a second wife and more so when he started having children from her. Especially where fathers had more than two wives or more than 10 children, daughters and sons often claim their father can hardly recognise them. When they went to ask for pocket money or school fees, their father would look at them clueless and say “Which mother are you from?”. This happened across the classes.

Polygamy also negatively affects the relationship between children and their mothers, with the former resenting the mother for being unable to make sure the father does not neglect them or for becoming depressed and also neglecting their emotional needs. Regardless of gender, they lack of confidence in their own ability to have stable relationships because they have only experienced a family life filled with traumatic quarrels and resentment. The children of second wives usually cope better because from birth they know their father has another family. But the children from the first family can see the comparison: the lack of time, lack of resources, their father’s absence when they needed him. Some of the children insisted SIS help them set up a support group to help them cope with feelings of isolation; at school they cannot relate their problems to anyone as they feel embarrassed about the situation.

The findings about the impact on children may offer an important opening for advocacy and change that can ultimately benefit women. Historically, changes to patriarchal interpretations of Muslim laws have often come in an effort to protect children’s rights. For instance, many Muslim countries now follow the principle of the best interests of the child when deciding custody, rather than rigidly applying traditionalist interpretations which deny mothers custody.

The impact of polygamy on women has both economic and emotional aspects. The research has found that many men in both lower and middle economic groups marry second wives so that they will contribute to the economic maintenance of their polygamous families. Women contribute to the nafaqa (the Muslim husband’s responsibility for maintenance) which polygamous husbands tend not to fulfil. Thinking through the last month’s expenditures, one second wife discovered for herself that the husband only provides one-third of the family’s basic needs: rice, sugar, coffee, vegetables, school fees, expenditure for school books, etc. The social reality is that most Malaysian women are breadwinners for their families, but women in polygamous families even more so. Many have some cottage business such as catering or making snacks without which there won’t be food on the table. A number of polygamous wives reported “I might as well be a single mother.” Under current government welfare policy, a single mother (divorced or widowed) can apply for welfare support but a polygamous wife, at least on paper, has a husband and cannot get that support. The interviews have challenged the traditional perception that second wives are ‘husband stealers’ who will benefit from the marriage as they reveal that most, even in the middle classes, live a hard life.

SIS’ research also looks at nafkah batin, a Malay term referring to sexual and emotional support. Those who support polygamy invariably claim that polygamy works if the husband properly follows the practice of giliran, or ‘turn-taking’: dividing time between the wives. All polygamous men claim they practice giliran, perhaps reflecting a subconscious recognition that the Qur’an enjoins equal treatment of multiple wives. But the in-depth interviews show that giliran is in fact unworkable: unplanned domestic crises such as a child falling sick or work crises all intervene to derail any giliran. Some polygamous men even seem to be trapped in the fable of masculine prowess. Taxi drivers with wives in two different states, or those who lose time travelling between families, say they are sometimes simply too tired to give time to their other family. When asked “Would you recommend polygamy to your children, your son?” a number of the better educated, professional middle class men said, “Seriously, I have to admit I wouldn’t. It’s quite stressful.”

Not just unworkable, the giliran ‘roster’ in fact seems to be largely a myth. When husbands were asked “So who’s turn is it today?” they were unable to answer, while wives simply said “Oh my husband keeps track of that.” Thus expected to follow the husband’s lead, women have evolved strategies for keeping their man. Interviews with rural women found widespread reliance on black magic to make sure the first husband does not forget her or to hex the second family. But the rural women also said “Don’t underestimate this. Even women in the Klang Valley area [where the capital Kuala Lumpur is situated] resort to this. They come back home to Kelantan and Terengganu, and consult the local bomoh.”

Husbands also report that the first wife becomes sexually competitive and manipulative. One said, “Before I took another wife, our sexual relations had waned a bit but as soon as I got married she is making more demands and I’m getting exhausted and I think it’s affecting my heart problem.” A second wife in Kelantan said “He asked me to give him a massage in order to ‘revive’ him. Hell, I gave him such a good massage and he fell asleep and started snoring and that ‘thing’ would not even go up!” The women quite openly discuss these problems. Although some of the interviews verge on the farcical, this should not detract from the fact that polygamous wives clearly suffer profound emotional and economic harm, two powerful grounds for future campaigning. But Malaysia may not yet be ready for a public discussion about the right to a satisfying sexual relationship, clearly also an issue in polygamous situations.

Far from the traditional Muslim ideal of a harmonious family with a male breadwinner providing all the family’s needs, the SIS research is revealing how polygamy leads to unstable and dysfunctional families and how the possibility of being just between wives and avoiding economic harm is a myth.

The research findings will be discussed at the 7th biennial Malaysian Studies Conference (MSC7) in March. SIS also plans booklets based on the findings.