In a liberal society such as Australia, it should not be a crime to have more than one wife, argues Keysar Trad.
IN JUNE last year, Triple J's current affairs program Hack ran an item on plural relationships. The ABC's youth broadcaster interviewed me about polygyny, a form of polygamous marriage in which a man has more than one wife at the same time. A bisexual couple were also interviewed.
To my surprise, I was reported on the ABC's respected current affairs program AM the next morning. Without speaking to me again and after seeking comments from the Attorney-General's office, AM ran the line: “Undeterred Keysar Trad says he's hoping to find another wife to join his family. To do so, he says, would be to honour his first wife.”
No such comment had aired on Hack. The media then spent more than a week mocking the practice of a husband having two or more wives simultaneously. No one took issue with the bisexual relationship, which involved one man and his female partner, who also had a relationship with another woman.
At the end of an interview on 2UE, Mike Carlton declared that, as a Judeo-Christian nation, we marry one person for life. After a pause, he added that we just have lots of affairs on the side.
In Western society, the “other woman” in an affair is stigmatised. She faces significant pressure to keep the relationship secret to protect her man because modern society frowns on plural heterosexual relations. If she fell pregnant, society – including her partner – could place great pressure on her to have an abortion.
The mistress in an affair should have rights. She needs to be protected if she decides to end the relationship because the man refuses to live up to her expectations and leave his wife.
The Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, must have been paying attention. A few months later, he introduced legislation granting rights to the second woman so that she could also share the assets of her married lover.
The problem of deception, however, does not go away.
Why in the liberal 21st century must we live a lie in relationships? And why do we continue to maintain a facade that monogamy is a perfect institution, when studies consistently reveal that most men admit to having affairs? Monogamy is great, but it is clearly not for everybody.
Islam openly acknowledges this fact of human nature and stipulates a regulatory framework for plural relations. But modern Western society, suspicious of all things Islamic, fails to recognise the qualities of Muslim marriage and family.
Legally enforceable monogamy was introduced by Emperor Justinian in the year 534. Justinian himself kept a courtesan as a mistress. He married her after the death of his wife, Euphemia, and only after he convinced Justin, his predecessor, to change the law so that senators could marry actresses and courtesans.
Justinian is said to have criminalised plural unions under the influence of St Augustine, though Augustine clearly stated in his treatise on marriage that having several wives is not “contrary to the nature of marriage”. Yet like other church fathers, Augustine preferred celibacy, or monogamous marriage if one could not be celibate.
Over the years, I have counselled adulterers from different faith backgrounds. I never tried to punish, hurt or expose them. I tried to guide them to mend their ways. I tried to help them understand that sex outside marriage was neither in their best interests nor in the best interests of society. If they were married, I did my best to ensure that their marriage remained safe and stable. Had they been in plural unions that conformed to the Islamic regulatory framework, such relationships would not have been adulterous, but divinely sanctioned unions.
Australian law has maintained the Justinian facade that a marriage is one man and one woman, and that every other relationship must be kept secret. Under Australian law, bigamy attracts penalties of up to seven years' imprisonment. On the other hand, polygamous marriages conducted overseas are recognised under family law for the purpose of property settlements.
When a couple marry in a Christian church, it indicates they want their marriage to be governed by the rules of that church. The same applies for unions conducted under Muslim rules.
For a marriage to be valid under Islam, it requires the consent of both parties, at least two witnesses and a dowry paid by the groom to the bride as a gift for her to use as she pleases.
There is no requirement for such a union to be "legally" registered with a secular body that does not recognise the clauses in a Muslim union. Plural relations of this nature that take place in Australia are treated like de facto relationships and are not registered. This keeps them outside the ambit of the nation's criminal and marriage laws. Such unions are not considered adulterous because they follow the rules of an Islamic union. They are not secret and they carry no stigma under God.
This is not to say that people are actively encouraged to enter such unions. Islam stipulates very strict equality in the treatment of wives. If a man cannot treat his wives equally, the Koran says he should have only one. Monogamy is the norm in Muslim communities. However, men who are capable of supporting more than one partner equally are advised to be open, honest and accountable in their relationships and to treat their wives fairly.
Yes, polygyny may lead to jealousy. We are all human. But in a caring and sharing world where we become euphoric when we give to those in need, sponsor orphans and provide foster care, the ultimate in giving is for a woman to give a fraction of her husband's time and affection to another woman who is willing to share with her. It is a spiritually rewarding experience that allows women to grow while the husband toils to provide for more than one partner.
In most cases, the husband ends up providing separate accommodation. The women can agree to share dwellings – it's entirely up to them.
Many men in Western society complain about their mother-in-law or a “nagging” wife. If his wife and in-laws were difficult, would he seek more of the same? The willingness of a man to take on another wife is in fact a form of praise to his first wife.
While Islam sanctions polygyny, it does not condone threesomes. Islam also does not permit polyandry, a form of relationship in which a wife takes more than one husband.
There are many reasons for this. Some are medical, some relate to paternity. Others pertain to the sexual proclivities of the different genders. The sex therapist Bettina Arndt, promoting her book Sex Diaries, outlined the merits of women saying "yes" more often to sex with their husbands. If Arndt's research is reflective of a greater portion of the population, a monogamous relationship leads to reduced interest in sex among women and a perpetual state of conjugal frustration among men.
If men in monogamous relations are not satiated, by its very nature polyandry creates an overwhelming burden for a woman in long-term relationships.
Who someone marries first is an accident of history. If a man who has an affair had met his mistress before his wife, he may have married her. Why maintain the facade that is the Justinian doctrine of monogamy knowing it has failed as a social experiment?
A man can have multiple girlfriends.
Why not formalise that into a commitment for life? Why should “bigamy” be a crime?
Keysar Trad is president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia. He will deliver a speech on why polygamy and other Islamic values are good for Australia at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House today.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald