“To have many wives is the best way I have found to reconcile my compulsions with my Muslim faith. Let’s not delude ourselves, it is not in man’s nature to be faithful to one single woman. This is how it is all over the world. Some choose to take mistresses and carry out secret relationships, while others, like me, prefer transparency and get married.” This is how Salim, 35, expressed himself.
He is married to two women and is looking to marry a third. Contrary to what many might think, however, he is not bearded and does not live in a time warp somewhere in the remote countryside. This self-proclaimed polygamist is an ophthalmologist with a hipster style and modern appearance. Equally surprising: he is not the only one who feels this way.
In fact, according to the study “Islam in Daily Life in Morocco,” by sociologists Mohamed El Ayadi, Hassan Rachik and Mohamed Tozy, 44% of the Moroccan population supports polygamy. Even more surprising, this same study reveals that “[public] opinion favoring polygamy is more significant in the educated classes than the non-educated [classes].” This gives feminists such as Fouzia Assouli, who has fought for many years to abolish the practice, cold sweats. “Polygamy is prejudiced against women, but it also has dire consequences for children and society,” sounded the president of the Democratic League For Women’s Rights (LDDF).
Mission complicated, but not impossible
The battle is far from being won, especially with the arrival of an Islamist government in 2011. Polygamy has, in some sense, regained popularity, with two Justice and Development Party (PJD) ministers who freely admit their status as polygamists. It is the case for Minister of Justice Mustafa Ramid, who went so far as to declare in an interview with TelQuel: “It is certainly easier than having one 'legal' spouse and a mistress.”
The other member of government who proudly flaunts his [practice of] polygamy is none other than Abdellah Baha, Minister of State without a wallet and spin doctor of Chief Executive Abdelilah Benkirane. If the latter is monogamous, he has no shame in declaring to the French daily Le Monde of his polygamous ministers, “It is not worse than having a bunch of mistresses.” With such a statement, we can gauge that an amendment of the Mudawana that would outright ban polygamy has no chance of passing in the era of Benky. ...
Officially, every year, more than a thousand like our Bedouin ophthalmologist Salim take a second or even third wife. More precisely, according to statistics from the Ministry of Justice, of 325,415 marriages officiated in 2011 in Morocco, 1104 authorizations were given for a second marriage, compared to 991 in 2010.
“We note in fact a slight increase in cases. While expecting an outright ban on polygamy, we cannot ever know the real trend of the numbers,” posited Khadija Rouggany, a lawyer at the Casablanca Bar and member of the Moroccan Association for the Rights of Women (AMDF). Some even manage to bypass the law — the famous Mudawana instated in 2004, which had most notably been for lowering polygamy by requiring men to ask permission from their wife before entering into another legal marriage. For this notary from Casablanca, “the Mudawana definitely complicated the conditions for marriage, making a second union essentially impossible. Some [people] do not hesitate to bypass the constraints of the new Family Code [Mudawana] to carry out marriage in secret, simply concluded by reading the Fatiha [first chapter, or sura, of the Quran]. Let us not forget, as well, that men become their most cunning when they want to get past the law.”
Obscure objects of desire
What exactly is it that makes desiring men dream of [having] many spouses? Aside from particular cases of sterility or chronic illness of the first spouse, the argument that is most systematically used by polygamists is: sex. More specifically, sex along with diversity of pleasure. Imad, a professor of math with a physique of never-ending youth — a veritable macho man — commented to us nonchalantly, “Who doesn’t dream of being a Don Juan, a Casanova or, to use the example of someone a bit closer to us, Haj Mitwaly (the hero of a famous Egyptian soap opera in the early 2000s)? Men who pretend otherwise are liars. … Deep inside we all fantasize of having a harem. Harems, however, are a privilege reserved for kings; polygamy is available to everyone.”
For his part, Salim, our ophthalmologist, affirmed in an equally laid-back, shameless manner: “It may seem a bit vulgar to you, but we cannot eat chicken every day. We need variety.”
This oft-cited excuse by proponents of polygamy assumes that the desire for diversity of pleasures is only applicable to men, but never for women. It also presupposes that, for these men, the relations they maintain with women are merely physical and that these women are, in their eyes, nothing but bodies and a tool to be used for pleasure. “For us as men — instinctively hunters — marrying multiple women is the ideal solution that allows us to live out our pleasures and fantasies, but in a way that is halal and guilt free. This is because Islam condones these relations,” elaborated Salim. "To me it seems that this is favorable for women, who could easily be recognized socially, have rights, inherit and have children.”
This point of view is shared by Abdeslam El Bouraini, the adoul and former president of the National Order of Adouls, for whom “polygamy is the best way to fight al fassad [corruption].” It should be understood that it is a matter of fighting extramarital sex. Otherwise, according to the former “big boss” of the adouls, this would also be a great way to fight celibacy, never hesitating to assert: “There are as many divorces as there are marriages each year, so this solution is vital to take in the surplus of single people resulting from this equation.” Who could say it better? For Fatiha Layadi, the ex-secretary-general of the Modernity and Authenticity Party (PAM), “these arguments are false and are no more than a way of making legal that which [currently is] not.”
Managers of Family Businesses
When asked if it isn’t difficult to cope with the moods and states of mind of multiple women, polygamists reply: “There are many men who manage businesses of 3000 people, so why not [just] two women?” So claimed Salim, without even realizing how reductive his comparison is to women. The same bell tolled for Imad: “When women feel they have competition or that they are in danger, they amp up their efforts to satisfy their husbands, to 'win' him. They pay more attention to themselves, dress up for us…and it’s amazing! Anything but difficult, having multiple wives gives a real sense of power.” Well, we’ll see …
However, if Islam authorizes this practice, it comes with rather strict conditions: “Marry two, three or four women as you see fit, however if you cannot be equitable, take only one woman.” (Quran, surat al-Nisaa’, verse 3). The same sura provides an even more enforced restriction: “You cannot treat all your wives equally, even if you wish to do so.” (al-Nisaa’, 129). This verse does a good job of highlighting in its own way that the life of a man married to multiple women would be marked by injustices done to one another.
How then do they organize their daily family life? In Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi’s movie, “In Search of My Husband’s Wife,” the wives agree to live together under one roof. Today, women in New Age-style polygamous situations insist on having their own house. For equity’s sake, they must all be of the same “caliber,” thank you very much. This is the case for Salim, our Dr. Polygamous, who rents two apartments in the Oulfa neighborhood in Casablanca. Two apartments means two rents: “This makes my housing budget close to 10,000 dirhams [almost $1,180] each month. This is no small amount. Additionally, in my eyes, money is the only real obstacle that I see in taking another wife,” he lamented in all seriousness. Imad, whose income is more limited, chose to buy a small family home in Sidi Maarouf in the suburbs of Casablanca and to put each of his two wives on a separate floor. He spends one night with one, and then the next with the other.
In this aspect, the requirement of a polygamist to be equitable toward his wives is both legal and religious. However, when translated into practice it proves impossible. There are countless testimonies concerning this. Effectively, juggling multiple homes gives even the most experienced husbands the spins. “Sometimes I feel well at home and spend a nice evening with the children. However, as soon as I get ready to leave to spend the night with the second wife, it is always the same. Often she shouts at me: ‘Go, leave my house and see your tramp.’ It is painful,” he confided in us, defeated. Household scenes that follow and repeat, where the polygamist finds himself in a psychological no man’s land that is difficult to make sense of, especially during Ramadan or holidays where he practically has to cut himself in two or three to visit his various families. “I have to let everything go and escape by myself or with a friend to relax, especially morally. I am always tired, but I feel tenderness for both of my wives,” admits Imad. A real headache …
Let’s talk about sex
Sexuality also poses a real physical challenge to polygamists.
This is where the word “equality” takes on a entirely new dimension. “A young polygamist will have more sex drive to make love to his wives in a way that leaves everyone satisfied. The older he gets, the less he will be able to fulfill his conjugal duties. This is where tensions start in each of his homes,” analyzed sex therapist Amal Chabach.
Sometimes, the husband prefers his sexual relations with the second wife more than the first. The former thus feels rejected and often reacts with violence. If he does not have sex with her, it means he just had it the night before with the other, as she sees it. Otherwise, it also occurs that the second, younger wife constantly needs sex and her older husband is not up to the challenge. And yet, with time, the man shows signs of physical fatigue as his libido gradually fades and his moments of not being able to perform become more frequent.
“When a man ejaculates, he needs a period of rest to regain his abilities before having sex again. This ‘resistant’ period increases with age. For a man in his fifties, it is physically impossible to have subsequent relations for the two following days. He needs a resting period of two to three days in order to be ready [to do it again],” concluded Amal Chabach. Managing a “harem” is a real sexual challenge that demands organization and, at times, stimulants. “Sure, at times when I work a lot, I cannot get it up. At times like this, I have my own concoctions: healthy food that is rich in simple sugars and fruits like avocados or almonds, ginger teas, or, in extreme cases, Viagra,” confided Salim, a real expert.
What do the women think?
And what about the individuals of interest in this matter? How do they feel? How do they handle being the wives of polygamists?
There are two reoccurring words when describing their feelings: anger and humiliation. “When my husband told me he wanted to take another wife, my entire world collapsed. Overcome with anger, I tried to understand why this was happening to me, what on earth could I have done wrong, where did I fail, and how in the end did I prove myself to be incomplete in a way that has made him desire another? We had been married for ten years with two beautiful children. Certainly, like all couples, there are highs and lows, but nothing out of the ordinary, except for a marked distance [that had grown between us] over the past two years, mostly because of his travels for work. Learning that he wanted to take another wife was truly humiliating,” recalls Sonia, 43, and an employee at a business.
The same was true for Fouzia, 35, and a housewife: “It was a shock. I had an idea that my husband was a hound and that he had mistresses — zehouani, as we say — especially since the birth of [our] children. I just never imagined for an instant that the man with whom I had fallen in love, an educated and modern man, could go through with this and remarry.” So then, if this has caused so much suffering for the wives, why did they give their consent?
“The pressure on these women is huge, and society has no pity for them. In Morocco, we always prefer for women to stay married, even if she is unhappy, rather than [be subjected to] the dishonor of divorce,” declared Fatiha El Ayadi. This is confirmed by Souad Benbessaoud, coordinator of helplines for the LDDF: “Polygamy is real psychological torture for women. This torture is perpetrated not only by the husbands who choose to take a second wife, but by the families of these women who, far from being supportive, have one single obsession [in mind]: avoid their daughters’ divorce at all costs, above all to prevent their return to their parents’ home.”
“Sure, I could have refused and asked for a divorce. I have the material means to get by on my own, I have a good job. But I thought of my children, who I would have deprived of a father in the eyes of society. Also, as a 43 year-old divorcee with two children, how would I redo my life? What man would still want me? Thus I have resigned myself to give him my consent to remarry,” Sonia sadly explained.
Then she told us that, since then, she has been seeing a psychiatrist and takes medication for chronic depression. This scenario is rather typical, according to a psychologist who specializes in couples [issues]. “When their husband takes another wife, women find themselves in grave distress or overtaken by feelings of guilt, often upheld by the attitude of those surrounding them and by society. This leaves them feeling that if their husband wants to remarry, it must mean that they were unable to satisfy, or 'retain' them. This chagrin and disarray sometimes degrades into depression, the effects of which can by dramatic, even fatal.
"This is the case of the woman who killed herself in 2008, with her two daughters in Mohammedia, after having learned that her husband had wanted to marry another woman since she had failed to give him any sons. The distress experienced by women is often shared by their children who inevitably bear the brunt of polygamy and the distortion of the nuclear family.
“When a father gets married for a second time, it inevitably has extremely harmful consequences on the children. Following this, it is not uncommon to see delays or failures in school and psychological withdrawal,” said Benmessaoud.
Some women choose still to fight and expend an enormous amount of energy toward this end. Take Fouzia, for example, who chose to try and get back: “Quickly, my combative side took over. It was as if I were at war. If I retreated from the battle now, the new [wife] would take everything and everything I had worked for until now would have been lost. Instead of outright rejecting her, I played along, going so far as to ‘befriend’ the second wife.
"Then, little by little, I brought out my real game: fine lingerie, I lost weight, started working out, updated my wardrobe and changed my attitude with [my husband]. … The results did not take long. After having become almost totally absent from [my] home, he came around more often, was more attentive and even seemed to be in love. In contrast, he has not yet repudiated the other [wife], however I expect I will succeed [in this respect] sooner or later.”
As we say, hope keeps us going …