Controversy resurfaces over polygamy among Egyptians

Sarah El-Sheikh
11 Min Read

Throughout the years, polygamy was always depicted in Egyptian cinema and drama without serious or official reactions to the topic, until the Grand Imam of Egypt’s top Islamic institution, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, said on Friday that polygamy can do “injustice to women and children.”

Al-Tayeb, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, said that the issue of polygamy is an injustice to women and it is not the origin of Islam, but it is conditional, adding that polygamy is often practised due to “a lack of understanding of the Quran.” His statement came during a weekly televised interview and on his Twitter account. His statement was considered the first comment by a top religious cleric on polygamy, stirring huge debate among people. In Egypt, religious clerics and scholars have always discussed the ways of raising men’s awareness on refraining from doing injustice toward any of their wives, and speak on the virtues of polygamy.

Meanwhile, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam statements were interpreted by some people as a prohibition for polygamy in general, leading the institution to release a statement on the following day in order to clarify Al-Tayeb’s argument.

Social media users were divided as some stated that Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam has diverted from the texts of the Sunnah and the holy Quran, while others praised his statements saying that it clarified the reasons for practising polygamy, as it should only be done if there is a strong reason.

Later after sparking debate, Al-Azhar clarified that Al-Tayeb was not calling for a ban on polygamy, and reiterated that monogamy was the rule, and polygamy is the exception, while those who think that marriage must be polygamous are all wrong. Moreover, Al-Azhar cited the Quran as stating that if a Muslim man is to have multiple wives, he must be equally fair to each of them, while forbidding him from having multiple wives if he will not be able to equally treat them with justice and fairness.

Noteworthy, polygamy in Islam allows Muslim men to have more than one wife, but not at the same time, while a woman cannot have more than one husband as it is a sin in Islam.

Polygamy sometimes causes divisions among partners, and is a cause for tearing the family apart, especially that some men practice it unjustly and abuse it, claiming that religion gave them this right. Moreover, some of them justify it by stating that it is a better action than betraying their wives.

On the other hand, the majority of females reject the practice of polygamy, while others sometimes accept it under certain conditions.

Throughout Egypt’s history, polygamy is practiced in families when one’s own son dies, allowing the other son to marry the deceased brother’s wife, even if he is married. The other common case is granting the men this right if their first wife is not able to give birth.

Al-Azhar is too late

Nihad Abu Al-Qomsan, the head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, commented in press statements that the comments of Al-Tayeb are fair to women, “but they were too late. Saying that after more than 1,400 years, there is still no culture developed in society to make sure that polygamy is a severe injustice to women.”

She added that women’s lack of sense of security and stability in the “marital relationship” are affecting their sense of stability in general, and men who marry a second wife are being unjust to themselves by misunderstanding the marital relationship, which should be based on love and integration between the partners.

In addition to the above, the National Council for Women (NCW) issued that it appreciates the statements of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and praised it, as it enlightened the minds, and it demonstrated the females’ rights. The council also praised Al-Tayeb’s permanent assertion that the Islamic religion honoured women, and granted them many rights which did not exist before.

Moreover, the NCW commended Sheikh Al-Tayeb’s explanation of polygamy and his assertion that “this right is restricted, and it should only be practiced through a justified licence, and requires a strong reason behind it, as well as a condition of exercising justice between the wives.”

What do psychiatrists think?

A psychology professor at Al-Azhar University, Hanaa Abu Shahada, said that multiple marriages without a need are the reason behind the problem, as divorce has increased due to this, but served as a solution for the delayed marriage of girls.

She also said that those who advocate the issue of polygamy should instead focus on coming up with initiatives to solve the economic crises experienced by the country, which is the main cause of divorce among the partners.

The number of unmarried females in Egypt reached 13 million, among those over the age of 30, according to the official statistics of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics. Men were called on to practice polygamy in order to reduce the rates of unmarried females in Egypt.

There is a significant link between polygamy and the high rates of divorce, as several opportunities are usually offered to divorced women, who are more likely to agree to marry a man without the acknowledgement of his first wife. Moreover, in several cases, the wives sometimes resort to requesting a divorce from their husbands when they practice polygamy.

A total number of 240 cases of divorce occur daily in Egypt, making the country one of the highest in the world in terms of divorce rates, which rose to 40% over the past half-century, at a rate of approximately one divorce every six minutes. The country, according to cabinet reports, has 2.5 million divorcees.

Medhat Abdel Hady, a marital relations consultant, said that throughout his experience in the field of family problems, he emphasised that polygamy is a failed experience by all standards, as there are economic pressures suffered from all the segments of society. No matter how rich the male husband is, he will never be fair to his wives.

Abdel Hady said that for a marriage to succeed, the relationship needs three types of conditions which are the satisfaction of the mental, psychological, and emotional needs which in turn are divided into intimate and sexual needs, and these are rarely met nowadays in one relationship, so how will those conditions be met if they are multiple relationships?

What do people think?

Abdelrahman Mohamed, 30, said that he does not agree with polygamy, as he believes that marriage should only be restricted to one partner where both partners can share their lives and feelings, and it should not be shared with two females. “I do not think there is a man on earth who can really be just with two families, and polygamy usually occurs due to greed and for unjustified reasons,” he said.

Salma Nossier, 26, said that she never could accept that her husband marries another female, and that a man should not marry another wife without informing his first wife. She commented that multiple wives are not a solution for anything, but they only damage the first relationship, explaining that if a divorced woman was in the shoes of the first one, she would never accept for her husband to marry another one. 

Islam Hussien, 33, said that, “I would rather marry another woman instead of betraying my wife, and as long as I can be financially responsible for two houses, I can do so.” When asked if he can be just to both of them, he confidently stated that his loyalty will be confined for the first wife because she is his first love, and the one who was “with him through the thick and thin,” yet, he will also grant the second wife all her rights as much as he can.

Basma Nasser, 27, who is engaged said, “I do not support polygamy, but in many cases it could really be beneficial and useful,” citing that there are females who need a man to be with them after their husband dies, or if they are are late in getting married, in addition to the case when the first wife is not able to give birth, so men should get a chance to have children in that case by marrying a second wife.

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