Polygamy—the practice of allowing men to marry up to four wives in Islam —can have profound psychological effects on women. Women’s views regarding polygamy, however, are considered taboo in many societies. One woman from a small village in Tamil Nadu, India has broken such a taboo.
Sultan Begum, 35, is a mother of two. Like many women in her village, she married young, at the age of 19. It was not a marriage of her choice. “I studied up to 8th standard. Then, as usual, I was compelled to get married in spite of my parents knowing that I wanted to study,” she wrote in her journal.
Sultan Begum was the second wife of her husband, who, she said, was left by his first wife after only 40 days of marriage. “At the time of marriage my husband was 31 years old and I was 19 years old…Both my elder brothers and my elder sister were not happy with this decision. They even asked my father, why he decided to go ahead with this alliance, as I was very young and there was a huge age difference.”
She described her marital life as “happy” for the first few years—that is, until her husband decided to marry her close friend and take her as a third wife. “He was working abroad. He came back after three and half years, in 2007 and we planned and had another baby. After that there were lots of problems and difference of opinion. I did not share my problems with my parents. This made me feel very bad and I was emotionally down and very depressed. My husband thought that I was a patient and could not have sexual relationship or emotional bonding with me,” she wrote.
“He took a wrong decision and started having an affair with another woman. When I came to know about this, I told him that I did not like this and came back to my parents’ place…I lost my faith and attempted suicide,” Sultan Begum disclosed.
“I became sick and had severe mental worries. I sought treatment in temples, mosques. I was suggested to seek different religious healing procedures and visited many religious places. They demanded large amounts of money for it. I was branded as a mentally ill person by my husband’s relatives and society,” she narrated.
Sultan Begum’s husband filed for divorce alleging mental illness. However, instead of demoralising her, the divorce notice served as a wake-up call. She asked herself, “Why should I end my life? I decided to live for my children.”
Today, she is struggling with how society views her situation and decision to leave her husband, who eventually wanted to get back to her after his third wife left him.
“Now I live with my parents and my children are with me. I told my husband, ‘I don’t want to live with you. I am earning and supporting my children.’ You may ask me, being a Muslim, how can you do that? How can you live without your husband? I am not living with my husband because he wanted to marry someone else. According to my religion, it is acceptable. Isn’t it?” Sultan Begum questioned.
Under Sharia or Islamic law, men can have up to four wives at a time, as long as he can provide materially for all of his wives and children. The origin of polygamy in Islamic law is an interpretation of a verse in the Quran. It is argued, however, the historical context of the verse reveals that marrying wives were meant as an act of compassion for widows and orphans at a time of war.
Polygamy for Muslims differs in law and in practice throughout the world. Not all predominantly Muslim countries adopt the Islamic law for marital regulations. In countries that do, however, women like Sultan Begum have difficulty in asserting their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
Instead of being treated medically due to the psychological stress of a polygamous marriage, Sultan Begum was ostracised by society. Still, she found the courage to speak up.
“I’d like to raise a question against all these norms. Whatever religion may say, I believe that conscience matters the most. Conscience does not obey norms and rules. It obeys only trust, faith, and compassion,” she wrote.
Sultan Begum’s economic empowerment helped her gain independence and assert her rights. She now owns a grocery store and has become a successful entrepreneur. She realised that she does not need to rely on her husband to support her children.
As a mother, she believes that girls need to be taught SRHR at a young age. “I taught my daughter what puberty is all about, the reproductive ‘dos and don’ts.’ Because back in those days we lived in fear and could not understand what SRHR was all about. The deprivation of knowledge gave us stress. That should not happen in my daughter’s life,” Sultan Begum said.
Even though polygamy is still widely accepted in the Islamic world, Sultan Begum is hopeful her personal story would inspire more Muslim women to break down barriers that disempower them and limit their rights.
“I’d like to prove myself and show to the world that a woman can do what she thinks. I want to be an example for my fellow women. Be brave and strong, set goals and be ready to face challenges. And in course of time, you will succeed,” she wrote.