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Malaysia Witnesses a Rise in Polygamy

by Savitha C Muppala on  February 13, 2010 at 9:57 AM Lifestyle News   - G J E 4
Rohaya Mohamad, a 44-year-old Malaysian doctor, chats happily about her plans for the evening, a romantic dinner for five with her husband -- and his three other wives.
 Malaysia Witnesses a Rise in Polygamy
Malaysia Witnesses a Rise in Polygamy
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Rohaya and her family, which has produced 17 children aged between seven and 21, are among growing numbers of Malaysians entering into polygamous marriages, a phenomenon that observers say is linked to rising "Islamisation".

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Critics say that the practice, legal for Muslims who make up 60 percent of the multi-ethnic population, is out of step with modern times and that it degrades the lives of women and children.

But Rohaya and her fellow wives say the arrangement works just fine for them, allowing them to easily juggle childcare, domestic duties and careers in their busy households.

The undisputed head of the family, 43-year-old husband Mohamad Ikram Ashaari, shuttles between the women's separate homes, spending a night with each in rotation before they join up on the weekends for family time.

He has taken a new wife every five years, starting with Juhaidah Yusof, a softly spoken 41-year-old who takes care of all the youngsters, and concluding with pretty 30-year-old Rubaizah Rejab, an Arabic language teacher.

His second wife, divorce lawyer Kartini Maarof, introduced him to number-three Rohaya -- who had sought the lawyer's services while divorcing her first husband, with whom she had seven children.

"She could see how busy I was so she offered me her husband. Initially I said no as I didn't want to hurt her... and my dad was really against it because polygamy has never been seen in a positive light," she says.

The family, part of the controversial Ikhwan Polygamy Club which says its mission is to improve the reputation of multiple marriage, believes it is a cure for social ills like adultery and pornography.

"Men by nature are polygamous, they have girlfriends and mistresses, they visit prostitutes -- it is normal," says Rohaya. "God has made men like that."

"But in Islam there is a way out which means you must be responsible for the women you want to be involved with."

They shrug off criticism that the club has its roots in Al-Arqam, a group banned by the Malaysian government which called it an illegal Islamic sect.

There has been particular controversy over plans to spread the club abroad, with branches in Indonesia to add to its network of 1,000 members across Southeast Asia, Australia, the Middle East and Europe.

Mohamad Ikram is a director with Global Ikhwan, a company whose diverse activities include restaurants and noodle manufacturing and which also manages the club.

"We want to say that polygamy works if you follow the rules of God. We don't expect people to follow but we want to change the mindset," says Rohaya.

The women say that in such a big household, friction is inevitable but they have learned to resolve their problems.

"It's a big family so it's normal that sometimes we argue, sometimes we get on, sometimes we get jealous," says Kartini.

The four wives seem to have an easy rapport with each other and their offspring, who troop in from school dressed in traditional flowing outfits before touching their foreheads to the hand of a visitor in a polite greeting.

But sociologist Norani Othman from pressure group Sisters in Islam says that these educated women and thriving children are not the typical polygamous family.

She says the practice's original purpose has been warped, and that the strict conditions to ensure women are fairly treated are routinely ignored.

"The Koran speaks of polygamy under certain circumstances -- for example, a war where you have lots of war widows and orphans. Historically a kind of emergency or welfare measure," she says.

These days, men can rarely afford to properly care for multiple wives and hordes of children, particularly in Malaysia's urban areas where the practice is becoming increasingly popular.

Her research has found that first wives, who often refuse to sanction the new marriage, are cut off financially and emotionally -- plunging them into poverty and depression.

Noraini says that up to five percent of marriages in Malaysia are polygamous, a figure that has risen as rules limiting multiple marriage have been watered down over the years.

"Over the past 15 years you can see a gradual increase... coinciding with the rise of Islamic revivalism, of Islamic fundamentalism," she said, adding it was likely there had been a further steep rise in the past few years.

"The impact of conservative Islam is that it gives an impression to ordinary faithful Muslims to just practice polygamy without seriously thinking of its repercussions."

But Mohamad Ikram and his family insist that polygamy can work well if those involved adhere to the rules laid out in the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

"I consider myself lucky that I have four wives, it reduces the temptation to commit sin," he says.

"Even though it's already enough, there's always the desire to have more -- one isn't satisfied with just four," he adds with a smile.

Source: AFP
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