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Australia: Polygamous Marriages, Multiple Reactions

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Sydney (Women's Feature Service) - Aamina was 27 when she married Ayoub to become his second wife in Tripoli, Lebanon. While Aamina viewed her marriage as something that fate had ordained, the family's decision to migrate to Australia meant that Ayoub had to divorce his first wife, as polygamous marriages are not legally recognised in Australia.

Like Ayoub, who ensured that his first wife was sponsored to Australia by their son, there are Muslim men from countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Sudan, who have migrated with more than one wife, but their multiple marriages don't have the legal sanction in their adopted country.

The issue of polygamous marriages is causing a furore in the country with the government categorically stating that polygamy shall remain forbidden. However, some Muslim leaders argue that such marriages exist and should be recognised on cultural and religious grounds to protect the rights of women.

Recently, two senior leaders of the Islamic community in Sydney called on the government to recognise polygamous marriages, or men marrying more than one woman, in order to protect the rights of women in such marriages.

One of the most vocal advocators of changing the Australian law to accommodate the multiple marriages is Keysar Trad, the president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, who grew up in a home with a mother and stepmother. "There was nothing out of the ordinary in our extended family. My mother and my stepmother were best of friends. Even though a polygamous marriage was not the norm, the Lebanese society even in the 1960s was very open-minded," recalls Trad.

"My father's first wife was ill and could not look after their five children when he married my mother. For the children my mother was a godsend and they addressed her as 'khaala', or maternal aunt, and made her feel tremendously appreciated and respected," he says, "It's a solution that our faith offers to social problems."

As marriages in the 21st century go beyond the traditional to encompass de facto relationships and recognition of gay and lesbian alliances, some are arguing for polygamous marriages to be protected and granted equal rights under the law.

According to Sheikh Khalil Chami of the Islamic Welfare Centre in Sydney's Lakemba suburb, polygamous marriages, although illegal, exist in Australia. He reveals that he has been asked almost weekly to conduct polygamous religious ceremonies. But while he refuses, he knows there are 'imams' (clerics) who do not.

Those seeking legalisation of polygamy cite that in traditional indigenous Aboriginal communities in Australia's Northern Territory, unofficially, such marriages exist and that these relationships are even recognised when the government grants welfare benefits.

In fact, in February this year, the United Kingdom ruled that it would grant welfare benefits to all spouses in a polygamous marriage, if the marriages had taken place in countries where polygamy is legal. Nearly 1,000 men are said to be living legally with multiple wives in Britain.

Polygamy is also common in Indonesia, but remains a controversial lifestyle choice. In the United States, polygamous sects such as the Mormons and practicing polygamists have conflicts with the law constantly.

"For religious men, polygamy essentially protects them from committing adultery. Adultery in Islam is strictly prohibited. If a man decides to have a sexual relationship with another woman, he has to marry her. In countries like Saudi Arabia, where polygamy is legalised, adultery or extra marital affair is rare," says Faten Dana, 45, President, Muslim Welfare Association of Australia.

"In Australia, one of the benefits of legalising polygamous marriages would be that men would openly talk about their relationships rather than under the garb of secrecy. Making these relationships formal will also grant the women and children in such relationships certain rights as men would have obligations and responsibilities towards them," says Dana, who migrated to Australia from Lebanon 19 years ago.

In 2006, there were 114,222 registered marriages, but there is no figure for polygamous marriages. The author of 'Islam: Its Law and Society', Jamila Hussain says, "The origin of polygamy dates back to the early days of Islam, to the battle of Uhud, when many men were killed. Men marrying more than one woman was a social welfare measure, ensuring that widows and fatherless children were looked after, as during those days there was no government social support system."

Citing similar situations that still exist, Hussain explains, "If we look at the massacres of men in Srebernica and Bosnia, polygamy can be justified on the grounds of providing material and emotional support for the women left behind. However, polygamy is and was never meant to be an excuse for men to indulge their sexual fantasies. Some men over the years have abused this right and maintained harems, but that doesn't affect the original rule which imposes a restriction of a maximum of four wives to be treated equally."

Hussain further adds, "In Australia there is a great deal of hypocrisy. The government recognises de facto relationships as legal. According to some estimates, as many as 75 per cent Australians are living in de facto relationships, which has become normal and acceptable. Even married men may be living in de facto relationships and, in some cases, in more than one de facto relationship. These are perfectly legal - no fuss. There is also a push for homosexual relationships to be legalised. But there is an outcry if Muslims want to marry more than once."

"A polygamous marriage is like any other marriage with trials and tribulations. It is not always a burden for women. In the current scenario, given the rise of HIV and STDs, in any sexual relationship one must tread with caution," says Hussain, a lecturer in Islamic Law at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The Qur'an allows Muslim men to have four wives as long as they can support and treat them equally. However, evidence shows that polygamous men cannot always adequately and equitably feed, shelter, educate, and emotionally cherish all their spouses and dependents.

The Australian Muslim population, at 340,400 or 1.7 per cent of the total population, is noteworthy for its diversity in terms of ethnicity, national origins, language, and class and not all in the community want polygamy to be sanctioned by law. The National Imams Council says, "As Australian Muslims we recognise that the Marriage Act 1961 prohibits polygamy and we are not proposing any changes to this law."

The government is in no mood to take a liberal view on the issue. Australia's Attorney-General Robert McClelland says, "There is absolutely no way that the government will be recognising polygamist relationships. They are unlawful and they will remain as such. Under Australian law, marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. Polygamous marriage necessarily offends this definition."

But what do the ordinary Muslim women have to say on this issue. Safiya Husain, 75, who migrated to Australia in 1981, feels polygamous marriages are not in the interest of women and children. She says, "In the times we live today, no man can treat all his wives equally. The women in such relationships can never be happy. The worst affected are the children."

Silma Ihram, an Anglo-Australian convert to Islam and one of the pioneers of Muslim education in Australia, believes most women are smart, educated, financially independent and don't want such relationships.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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