British Muslims and polygamy: beyond the headlines

Dr Katharine Charsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

Dr Katharine Charsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies

The Telegraph this week carries an article titled ‘Mass Polygamy in the Muslim Community – Claim’, drawing on a report, ‘Equal and Free? 50 Muslim women’s experiences of marriage in Britain today’, by the West Midlands-based charity AURAT (woman). The article highlights the issue of polygamy – 31 of the 46 married women interviewed reported that their husband had more than one wife. Baroness Cox is quoted as saying: “You can’t extrapolate straight from this but you can make a reasonable assumption that if this is not unrepresentative, this is clearly very widespread, and we are therefore dealing with enormous numbers… The implications for the women are very serious and it violates the fundamental principles of our country that bigamy is illegal and yet polygamy is condoned and allowed to flourish.”

Several points need to be made about the coverage of this report.

The first is that whilst bigamy (being legally married to more than one spouse) is illegal and probably pretty rare in the UK, multiple relationships (and the concealment of one relationship from another partner) are neither illegal, nor unknown amongst the ‘monogamous’ ethnic majority population of Britain.  As ‘religious only’ marriages are not legally recognised, having such a relationship alongside a legally recognised marriage, or having multiple such relationships at one time, is not illegal.

Second is that the focus on polygamy obscures the broader contribution of the AURAT report, which explores the potential vulnerability of women whose marriages are not legally recognised and who may not be legally entitled to a financial settlement in case of divorce.  Again, however, this is not an issue which applies only to Muslims in polygamous relationships, but also to those of any ethnic or religious background who cohabit without a legally recognised marriage ceremony. Neither are ‘religious only’ marriages confined to polygamous relationships  –  just as some majority ethnic couples decide on a different form of ceremony (or none) to celebrate their relationship, some British Muslim couples choose (for a variety of reasons) to hold a religious ceremony without civil registration of the marriage.

The third issue is the question of extrapolating from small studies – which Baroness Cox herself rightly warns against. There is simply no empirical evidence to suggest that anything like two thirds of British Muslim women are in polygamous marriages. Indeed, my own research with British Pakistanis over the last 15 or so years suggests such marriages are very much in the minority.  AURAT is a charity which provides support for ‘female victims of honour and cultural-based abuse’, and the report is based on interviews with its users and their friends. Extrapolating to the British Muslim population as a whole is therefore analogous to basing estimates of rates of domestic violence amongst the British population on a small study conducted only amongst users of services for victims of domestic violence and their friends.

My own research suggests a wide range of motivations for, and experiences of polygamy. Not all apparently polygamous situations are polygamous in practice: for example when a first marriage has broken down, but the civil divorce has not yet been finalised (a process which can take some time) a second, religious, marriage may take place whilst the person is still legally married. Not all religious marriages are accompanied by immediate cohabitation and consummation – an early nikah (Islamic marriage ceremony), for example, allowed one couple to ‘date’ without community disapproval before the marriage was celebrated in a larger ceremony.

Polygamy is often presented as symbolic of a static, unchanging ‘Muslim’ tradition, but in some cases may be a part of processes of cultural change. As divorce is on the rise amongst South Asian Muslim populations in Britain, and given the continuing stigma of divorce, polygamy may extend the options for remarriage for women. Some young British Pakistanis hold ‘dual marital aspirations’ – hoping both to fulfil their families’ preferences in choice of marriage partner, and for a ‘love’ marriage of their own choosing – for some men, polygamy holds out the possibility of fulfilling both aspirations. In one case I encountered, a young man pressured into marrying a cousin in Pakistan suggested to his British Pakistani girlfriend that polygamy could be the solution to their situation – whilst he could not divorce without causing great family conflict and suffering to his cousin, perhaps they could also still get married (the young woman, however, refused this suggestion, not wanting to be a second wife). As this suggests, there are also differing opinions among British Pakistanis about desirability of particular polygamous situations.

Although also based on small-scale social research, these findings suggest a much more diverse picture of contemporary polygamy amongst Muslims in Britain. It is worth remembering that monogamous marriage is only one possible way of organising family relationships. Globally, polygamy is fairly common, and not just amongst Muslims: polygamy among Mormons in the US has attracted considerable attention. In contemporary Britain, however, polygamy forms part of wider negative portrayals of Muslim men as villainous patriarchs, and Muslim women as victims.  As the AURAT report reveals, some polygamous marriages are the cause of suffering for women involved, and there is an inherent gender asymmetry in that only men are permitted multiple spouses, but this is not the full story of contemporary British polygamy. Scratch beneath the surface of the stereotypes, and we often find much more recognisable narratives in which people attempt to negotiate complex relationships and situations. The difference for British Muslims is that the existence of religious marriage alongside or separate from civil marriage creates some additional possible permutations for how their relationships may be arranged or given social, legal or religious recognition.

Further detail and references relating to the content of this blog can be found in: K. Charsley & A. Liversage 2013. Transforming Polygamy: migration, transnationalism and multiple marriages among Muslim minorities. Global Networks 13 (1): 60-78. 


2 thoughts on “British Muslims and polygamy: beyond the headlines

  1. I found your article outstanding. You hit the nail on the head. I am a solicitor and specialise in Islamic family law. I believe you would be interested in my new project ‘Register Our Marriage’. I look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Thanks Aina – I’ve been following the theme on the plurilegal discussion group, and saw a little coverage in the Guardian a couple of years ago, but I’d be grateful for more information on your new project!

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