Polygamy has arrived in Canada, it seems. That might be illegal, but increasingly Islamic clerics are coming forward to solemnize a second marriage when the first one is still extant.
One imam admits he has blessed over 30 such unions. After all Islamic law permits polygamy. A divine law can hold its own against the man-made, he argues.
Safa Rigby came to know that her husband had married another woman in Toranto, when she was away in her native Egypt. They had four children and been married 14 years and suddenly the shocking news that he was deserting her.
It was terrible. "I cried for six days straight. Lost my appetite, ignored the kids, even had to start taking antidepressants," said Rigby, 35. "What I couldn't understand was how such a thing could happen in Toronto, my hometown, where polygamy is supposed to be illegal," Rigby agonized in an interview to Toronto Star.
"Polygamy is happening in Toronto; it's not common, but it's happening," admitted Aly Hindy who had officiated Rigby's second marriage.
Hindy, hardly a stranger to controversy is well known for his friendship with the family of Omar Khadr, the young Canadian detainee at Guantanamo Bay, and his outspoken views on the implementation of Islamic law. In the past five years, Hindy said he has officiated or "blessed" more than 30 polygamous marriages; the most recent was two months ago. Even some imams in the GTA have second wives, he added.
"This is in our religion and nobody can force us to do anything against our religion," he asserted. "If the laws of the country conflict with Islamic law, if one goes against the other, then I am going to follow Islamic law, simple as that."
Those who condone the practice rarely let their views be known, and those who practise it themselves tend to do so in secret, making it difficult to record how many such marriages have taken place in the Greater Toronto Area. Equally hard to determine is how many polygamous families have immigrated to the country, despite a 2005 report commissioned by the federal Status of Women that tried to find out the extent of polygamy and its implications.
But conducting such unions in clear violation of Canadian law is wrong, according to Syed Mumtaz Ali, president of the Canadian Society of Muslims, who speaks frequently on polygamy issues.
"Muslims should not enter into polygamy while they are living in Canada, because the local Canadian law prevails. It overrules the Islamic law if there is a conflict between the two," he said.
Under the Criminal Code, polygamy was deemed a crime in 1892. Those who enter into reside in, or officiate a polygamous union can be charged with a criminal offence and face up to five years in prison.
But the last time polygamy was prosecuted in Canada was more than 60 years ago. Fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful, in southeastern British Columbia, have managed to get away with openly practising polygamy, believed to be an integral and necessary part of their faith, since the 1940s with little legal recourse.
A raid six weeks ago on a Texas polygamist compound, in which 440 children were seized by child-protection officials, also drew attention to the practice of polygamy and a sect's religious beliefs. An appeals court, however, ruled this week that the children, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, be released.
Islamic laws on polygamy, while based on religious texts, differ from the Mormon example. While the Qur'an permits polygamy, it is not a requirement of the faith " and for those who wish to practise, there are strict conditions: "If you deem it best for the orphans, you may marry their mothers " you may marry two, three, or four. If you fear lest you become unfair, then you shall be content with only one, or with what you already have."
"The purpose of polygamy was to protect women," said Shahina Siddiqui, a social worker with the Islamic Social Services Association, who has worked on a number of polygamy cases. "The way it is being done here, it is not just. Second and third wives have no social support, no legal protection, no recourse if things go wrong; that in itself negates the entire premise of the Islamic law. It can't do what it was meant to do." Polygamy can work, Siddiqui stresses, if the society is set up for it, if it's open to it, and if adults consent to it.
Provincial laws do provide some protection for women in polygamous marriages. According to the Ontario Family Act, women who came to Canada with valid polygamous marriage documents can claim spousal support and welfare benefits. While the law has yet to be challenged, it is believed that those married here could also likely do the same on the basis of being vulnerable persons.
"It was about women and their needs back then, but what it is today is about a man wanting to have more women," said Rigby, who recently moved back to Canada with her children, and has just started the process of separating from her husband, a businessman. "This is their `halal' form of having an affair."
Rigby said her husband told her his reasoning for marrying the second wife was to "help" her out of a difficult financial situation. Other polygamists cite marrying divorced women as a means to provide them support or be able to have children if their wives are unable to conceive. In some cases, a wife who is ill will herself begin the process of looking for a spouse for her husband, said Hindy.
"I don't encourage people to do it, unless they have reason for it. Life ends up being very complicated. You have to jump from one house to another all the time," he said.
That's why Hindy advises men to keep the second marriage a secret as long as they can, even from the first wife. There have been instances where he has gone with the men to their homes to share the news with the first wives, in an attempt to help lessen the blow.
Hindy had advised Rigby's husband to stay quiet. When Rigby e-mailed Hindy, soon after discovering he had conducted the marriage, he offered little support.
"You have to stand beside him in these difficult times. You should stop causing problems to him. You will not get anything by divorce except destroying your life," she said he told her.
Since the marriages are shrouded in secrecy, women are embarrassed to speak about their situations, have few supports in place, and are often forced to deal with it alone.
"You are ashamed. You feel like you are the reason behind it. I stopped socializing, interacting. I became withdrawn. People's first impression is that if a man marries again, it's because of the failings of the first wife," Rigby said. "I spent a year trying to fix the problem, which I didn't even create."
It took Rigby almost two years to leave the marriage, as she struggled to figure out how she would manage as a single mother, now with five children, ages 1 to 14.
While the Muslim factor may be a minor one in the larger debate around polygamy, which for years has focused on Bountiful, B.C., there is consensus on both sides that the practice will soon be forced to face a constitutional challenge.
Muslims have thought that if such a challenge on the basis of religion is launched, they would also benefit. But Nik Bala, a family law professor at Queen's University, believes the case for Muslims is much weaker than that of the Mormons.
"In Bountiful, the argument of freedom of religion applies, since polygamy is a requirement necessary to get to heaven. Islam permits polygamy, but doesn't require it to be a practising Muslim," said Bala. "The freedom of religion argument doesn't hold up as strongly."
But on both sides of the debate, the protection of women and children is considered paramount, writes Noor Javed in Toranto Star.
In Rigby's eyes, whether polygamy is illegal or legal is irrelevant. "If it is happening and it is here, then there should be some kind of support system set up to protect us," she said, suggesting marriage workshops or support groups for women.
For now, Rigby is writing a blog on her two years in a polygamous marriage. "No one wants to talk about it, but at a certain point, we're going to have to start having that conversation."