Farid would take a fourth wife if he could afford one. This 29-year-old gravel supplier says he has already received a dozen calls from single women in his neighborhood who want to join his three current wives. He is something of a catch. His hillside house has no water or electricity, but his business hauling gravel provides a steady income. The fact that he has three wives and seven children, three of them sons, is a mark of his status in the community.
If marriage is the building block of society, then polygamy represents one of the profounder differences between Islam and the West. There are no comprehensive figures for the number of polygamous marriages in the Middle East. The practice is outlawed in Tunisia and Turkey, but may be as high as 25% in Afghanistan, according to UN estimates here. Whatever the figures, polygamy’s legal standing in Sharia law and idealized position in some communities have led to a very different view of society. A certain utilitarianism puts the demands of family and tribal loyalty – and the production of sons – far before the romantic love that’s central to the concept of marriage in the West.
Some history first: the Koran allows men to have up to a maximum of four wives. When this Koranic verse was revealed, many Muslim men divorced wives in excess of four in order to comply. The Prophet Muhammad had a total of eleven wives throughout his life, though no more than nine at any one time. One of the primary motives both then and now for multiple wives is the need for sons, who will inherit the family’s estate (women, when they marry, effectively join their husband’s family). A common justification among Middle Eastern men for taking a second wife is that their first has not produced a son. Another reason is that first marriages are often arranged by families between cousins, without consent from either man or woman. A second wife can often be a “love match.” On other occasions widows, of which there are many in Afghanistan, are re-married to surviving brothers to keep the children in the family.
In all of these circumstances women are clearly treated as commodities. with little say in whom they marry. There are further, psychological ramifications. In Iraq, I witnessed one family torn apart by a man’s decision to take a second wife. The man, called Ali, had begun work as a driver with a Western security firm and was earning a large salary ($2000 a month), giving him the financial means to take another wife. His original wife, however, refused to accept the legitimacy of the second, leading to a painful rivalry, which ultimately split the children, the sons favoring the father, the daughters the mother, and led to divorce. In other cases I’ve seen in Yemen, the husband has inevitably favored certain wives, leading to simmering rivalries played out among the children.
When I asked Farid if there was rivalry between the different wives and their children, he told me to look at them happily playing together. Farid insists his relationship with his three wives is happy. He says his wives form a tight family unit, sharing the housework. His first wife was happy for him to take a second wife, he claims. “She went to the family of the second woman and made the proposal on my behalf,” says Farid. Each time he gets a new wife, Farid adds a new room to the house, spending one night in turn with each wife.
But Farid did not allow me to interview his wives for this video, after deciding that their views, if publicly broadcast, would bring shame to the family. He only allowed me to film them on the condition that they wear burqas. (One wife was visiting family in the north during my visit).
“Neither I nor my wives come from a rich or well-educated family, so we value things different to the smart people in the city,” said Farid. “We want lots of sons, and for them to grow up clever and strong.”