GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — They entered the hairdresser’s shop together. One looked serious, covered in traditional Islamic dress; while the other seemed more lively, wearing pants and lots of makeup. The first woman had an authoritarian air that she tried to impose on the second, who ignored her as best she could.
They looked like sisters, except for the hatred that filled their eyes. The hairdresser got close and whispered into my ear, “They are sister-wives.” The hostile air between them dissuaded me from asking about the particulars of sharing the same man.
Similar examples are easy to find in all of Gaza’s social strata, be they rich, poor or even middle class.
"Assaad al-Ghazi," a pseudonym, has been married to two women for the past 10 years. Ghazi, 40, told Al-Monitor that men are driven into polygamist relationships for a variety of reasons, such as dissatisfaction with the first wife, emotional needs or love for another woman. He explained that being married to two women is a source of trouble in his life, “I am constantly worried that one of them will be treated unfairly, particularly considering that I have children from both.” He indicated that he cannot always be equitable, and sometimes has to lie to one of the two.
According to the Palestinian personal status law, a man may marry up to four women, even though this violates Article 16 of the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The convention, signed by the Palestinian Authority in March 2009, requires that all appropriate measures should be taken to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.
"Ahlam Ahmad," 38, had achieved financial and professional independence before choosing to become a second wife three years ago. She told Al-Monitor, “Becoming the second wife is the worst decision that a woman can make. She will always live with the guilt of taking what was not hers.”
She added, “In most instances, the second wife discovers that 90% of the things that her husband told her about his circumstances and his first wife were lies.” She explained that problems arose when the first wife did not accept her husband marrying another woman. Neither woman talked to the other at all, which is not usually the case between sister-wives.
"Salma Awad," 35, is an attractive woman to whom dozens of men have proposed, but chose to become the second wife of a married man she fell in love with. She told Al-Monitor, “I think that deciding to become a second wife is a choice born out of necessity. In all cases, it is a difficult decision because marriage is difficult enough in itself, let alone to an already married man.”
Salma reminisced about lost dreams and the many concessions that had to be made both emotionally and on her principles, as well as the lies that were uncovered, leading her in the end to a harsh and painful life. She added, “In the beginning, I was wrought with jealousy. But I have learned to accept reality and now have more time to concentrate on work and self-development.”
"Omnia Salem," 33, discovered by chance that her husband had married another, despite their marriage still being a love story. “You cannot imagine the pain and humiliation that I felt, particularly considering that we were raising our children. For what will the future hold, now that it includes an outsider?”
She added that she understands that such practices were allowed in the Muslim religion, for reasons relating to a wife’s infertility or sickness. But she believes that polygamy can only lead to injustice between sister-wives, and is an indication of a man’s selfishness when he marries another despite loving his first wife. Describing how her life was shattered, Omnia said, “I constantly think about divorce, only to preserve my sense of self and maintain my dignity in the eyes of my children.”
Human rights organizations have called for restricting this practice through the imposition of conditions, such as requiring a pressing need to marry another, informing the new wife of the existence of the first, informing the first wife that the husband intends to marry another, as well as guaranteeing her the right to seek separation.
In the corridors of the Sharia Court in Gaza City, a staff member who preferred to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “The deteriorating economic situation in the Gaza Strip makes a first marriage nearly impossible to maintain, let alone a second one. But after the last war, second marriages are on the rise, due to the increased number of widows.”
He clarified that statistics indicate that second marriages totaled 1,376 in 2012, rising to 1,466 in 2013. He added, “These cases include divorced men who remarried and men who married a second wife.”
We were interrupted by a citizen who came to have a power of attorney notarized in preparation for marrying a woman living in Germany. The man was older, so we asked whether he was already married. He replied, “Yes, I am. My first wife and children approve because she will take us all to Germany.”
The chairman of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, Hassan al-Joujou, told Al-Monitor, “Second marriages in Sharia are exceptions and not the rule, with Sharia condoning only marriages to one wife." He continued, “This is as far as religion is concerned, but the law gives men the right to marry more than one woman without any [specific] reasons. In this sense, legislators, not us, may restrict this right.”
Asked about the contention that the lengthy rule of Islamic-oriented Hamas led to the increase of this phenomenon, as some of the movement’s most renowned leaders have multiple wives, Joujou expressed his disagreement. He added, “Polygamy is born out of personal conviction, irrespective of any party or policy.”
At the end of the 1990s, following the ascent of the Palestinian Authority to power in 1997, a group of female activists worked to change the personal status law by establishing the Mashriqiyat organization, which was met with overwhelming social rejection.
Women’s rights activist Izza al-Kafarneh told Al-Monitor, “Despite my rejection of second marriages, we in Mashriqiyat asked that second marriages be restricted rather than outlawed, for a ban of polygamy would be unacceptable. In that, we based our opinion on religious jurisprudence, and submitted a series of recommendations endorsed by all parties, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. But the issue was never implemented on the ground.”