Financial dependence, religious indoctrination and fear of social disapproval is what makes them stay.

What its like to be in a polygamous marriage Two Muslim women share their stories
Features Polygamy Friday, October 21, 2016 - 09:12

Ten years ago, an Indian techie K Suryanarayana from Hyderabad was beheaded by the Taliban in Afghanistan. But when the government approached his wife Manjula to give her compensation, a second woman, Swapna, also approached them, claiming to be his second wife. But Manjula had no idea about her husband’s second “love” marriage.

The government had to walk a tightrope between the two families Suryanarayana had left behind: Manjula attempted suicide and Swapna threatened self-immolation if she wasn’t given Rs 5 lakh as compensation. Amidst the drama that followed, there was hardly any conversation about how common polygamy is in the country.

With the current debate on triple talaq, there is increasing dialogue on Muslim women’s rights and dignity. While the above case involved two Hindu families, where Manjula did not know that her husband had been a bigamist, Islamic personal law allows a man to take as many as four wives.

For Asmina*, it was the fear of being unable to support herself and her children, as well as the love for her parents which compelled her to stay in a loveless marriage. Her husband, Sheraz* is 12 years older to her, abusive, and constantly scrutinizing her character and questioning her fidelity. Asmina knew Sheraz as a distant cousin and got engaged to him when she was in Class 8. She married him in 1995, against her wishes, after finishing Class 10.

“I didn’t like him, or his constant scrutiny. We were poor and my parents were afraid of what people would say if my engagement broke. I was only 15 and could not bear to hurt my parents, so I did not protest after a point,” Asmina says.

Asmina describes life after that day as a cycle of fighting and making up. “I loved studying, but Sheraz wouldn’t have it. I couldn’t even speak to my uncle without him questioning my intentions,” she shares. Five months after the wedding, Asmina was pregnant with their first child. In the sixth month, Sheraz fought with her over something trivial, and walked out of the house, returning only after Asmina’s parents pleaded with him. This was the first of many such instances.

“I thought that things would change after our child was born. But there was no happiness for me within those four walls,” Asmina confesses.

Somewhere in 2003-2004, Asmina decided she had had enough and came to her parents’ house with her two children. Four months later, Sheraz, now 40 years old, had remarried. His second bride, like Asmina, was only 15. But Asmina didn’t learn about the wedding until seven months later. “What hurt me was his deceit. He said that I had eloped with another man in order to marry again. Why couldn’t he be honest?” she says with anguish.

Asmina took the case to the jamaat leaders. “Sheraz admitted his mistake and said that I could come and live with him again. I refused, because I could not bear his atrocities any more,” Asmina says. She also refused to divorce him. “My children were very young. When they grew up and if he (husband) got any benefits, I did not want my children to be excluded from those,” explains Asmina.

Now, 11 years later, Asmina has made a life for herself by working in the health department of BMMA. Her son is studying to be an engineer and her daughter is in PUC, 1st year. She still crosses paths with her husband sometimes but they both do not look at each other in the eye. “I no longer care about the benefits but I will not approach him to divorce him. If he comes to me and asks for it, I will. But he never approached me again. I have made a life for myself and my children. I am no longer afraid of how I will live the rest of my days,” says the 35-year-old.

Asmina also bears no ill-will against the second bride, but only has empathy for the young girl. “Like me, she was also a child when she got married. I’m sure she did not have a choice. People tell me that now she is facing the same problems as me. I do not resent her at all,” Asmina maintains. She also could not bear the thought of her children being ill-treated, so remarriage was not an option. “But I’m happy now. My children will have a bright future. That’s all that matters,” she says. 

Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founder of Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), says that fear of divorce may be one of the reasons women end up staying in polygamous marriages, even if they are unhappy. “First, there’s socio-economic dependence on the man. Then, there is the stigma of living as an abandoned or divorced woman which often forces them to stay,” she says.

While Asmina had the courage to walk out of the polygamous marriage, many others are unable to. Kasargod-based Feroz* for instance, is ridden with guilt almost a decade after her husband married for the second time, because of what her religion preaches and how she feels about it. “I have heard religious leaders preaching that wives should allow husband to marry twice or thrice. Maybe I am selfish, I don't know,” she says.

In 2007, when her eldest daughter was in class 12, Feroz’s husband Shafaq* married an 18-year-old girl. “He said she belonged to a poor family and that her parents had to marry her and her two sisters off. He said that the Prophet asked to protect the abandoned and the poor. 'You and I will get blessings from God and enter heaven,' he told me,” Feroz recounts.

When she tried asking Shafaq why he couldn’t find another groom to help the family, he got angry. “I was scared. I couldn’t bear it, I cried day and night. I gave birth to his four children and now he was marrying someone else,” she rues. The nikkah took place as per religious customs. “No one asked for my permission,” says Feroz.

She first contemplated suicide and then divorce, but decided against both for the sake of her children and because she did not want to bother her brothers. Her parents passed away when she was a child.

Feroz says that because of the atmosphere in the house, her eldest daughter always wanted to escape from home and was happy when they married her off at 19. “But I made the boy promise me that my daughter would never have my fate,” Feroz says.

Now, almost a decade later, Feroz lives with her three daughters, her husband, his second wife, and the two children she bore. Confusion, guilt and hurt are still her companions. “I feel like crying loudly sometimes. I used to apologise to Allah for feeling hurt. But I’ve realized I’m human, not god,” says the 48-year-old.

Nasreen works as the convener for BMMA for Karnataka and in her experience, women who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds are often more willing to walk out of unhappy polygamous marriages than those from the middle-class.

“Many middle-class women are indoctrinated with staunch religious values, which they are afraid to defy. It’s something we are still trying to understand but we cannot make a generalization,” Nasreen cautions.

Noorjehan points out however, that polygamy is not limited to the Muslim community alone. "The only difference is that we do not have legislation which outlaws polygamy, which makes women's cases difficult," she says. 


(*Names changed to protect privacy)

(With inputs from Haritha John)

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