Polygamy in a social and historical aspect

Polygamy in a social and historical aspect

Polygamy is deeply resented but has to be understood in a social and historical context.

Sharia law permits Muslim men to practice polygamy and be married to as many as four women at a time. But it disallowspolyandry, the practice of a woman having multiple husbands. Under section 494 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), marrying another man or a woman without getting a divorce or before the death of the spouse is illegal. Whoever violates this rule, the Code states, “shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine”.  The IPC is applicable to everybody except the Muslim community, which is governed by the provisions of Muslim personal law.

Says Dr. Samata Deshmar, a sociology professor from Bangalore University, “According to the Indian constitutional law and the sharia law, the community is permitted to practice polygamy. The Quran also permits them to do so and they can adapt it, especially on the Qazi’s advice. Of course, the custom should stop in today’s society.”

Nikah halala is a role reversal in Muslim gender practice that allows a female Muslim divorcee to marry, consummate the marriage and then get a second divorce in order to remarry her previous husband. Shiraz, an auto driver in Bangalore has two wives. “Our religion (mazhab) states that one marriage is permissible for every individual on a usual basis, polygamy is not promoted then,” he says. “But our Prophet (nami) had 9 marriages (nikaahs), 9 wives in total.  It’s not that you can marry one woman over the other on a spree. Every marriage has to be valid in reason (munhazeeb). It should help the woman who’s getting married, in case she’s too poor, distraught or divorced and needs stability and a family (istabaat). Our sharia law allows us to do so and women give support via this.”

Arshi Hussain, a law student from Techno India University believes that the institution of polygamy was created by the Prophet to socially uplift women and to provide for them financially. “In today’s generation, it doesn’t make sense to follow this system anymore as it’s not practical. No woman or man in their rightful minds would follow this custom as it promotes immoral activities.” Others say polygamy was a social necessity in the context of the seventh century Islamic wars of conquest, which saw a drastic reduction in the number of men and a resulting gender imbalance.

Says Mohammad Danyal Faridi, an engineering student from Aligarh Muslim University, “People think of polygamy as oppression by a man but what they can’t comprehend is that in Islam, polygamy is not akin to a man being serviced by a harem of women. In fact, it’s not even allowed for a Muslim man to consummate his marriage with both of his wives at the same time as he is deemed to be with one wife at one point of time.”

On March 26ththis year, the Supreme Court decided to examine the constitutional validity of the practice of polygamy and several other Muslim marital practices while hearing a petition by two women’s organizations. The petitioners argued that polygamy and nikah halala were unconstitutional and should be declared illegal. The court is awaiting the government’s response in the matter before deciding whether to proceed on the issue.

The court’s decision to admit and hear the petition has been opposed by many conservative Muslims on the ground that the Constitution clearly allows for India’s minority communities to be governed by their personal laws till a uniform civil code is enacted. According to census data, more women in India remain divorced than men and thus a case can well be made that polygamy still serves a social function in that it provides for women who have no other means of support.

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