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Polygamous gossip amongst Malay women


Circulating and sharing gossip about polygamous unions seems to be a strategy for first wives to cope with the ever-present threat of a husband taking a new wife.

FORUM/16.9.99 When I lived in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for 15 months, one of the things that struck me most was how much Malay women talked about polygamy. Malays, who make up about 60% of Malaysia's population, are all Muslims and according to Islamic law, men are allowed to marry up to four wives. Polygamy, however, is generally considered rare in Malaysia, a thing of the past dying out with modernity.

Nevertheless, all the women I talked to would always bring up polygamy at some point.
It was the topic of gossip when we met for lunch or religious celebrations, or story telling at night.
Many of the women I knew had either grown up in polygamous households, were presently in polygamous marriages or had close family or friends engaged in polygamy. For all women I met, the threat of polygamy, as they often called it, was a reality they had to deal with. The possibility that their present or future husband might take another wife caused them much anxiety and stress.

Unsurprisingly polygamy was a favourite topic of gossip and conversation among Malay women. They would revel in whose husband had married whom, why and under which circumstances. With a sense of thrill and outrage they would tell me particularly hair-raising stories about men's cunning and women's abandon in polygamous unions.

The gossip mill is directly fed by the secrecy that often surrounds polygamous marriages in Kuala Lumpur. A man's right to take more than one wife is not automatically granted in Malaysia, but subject to approval from the local Syariah [Muslim] court. And in some states it involves informing and getting consent from the first wife, something many men may be unable or unwilling to do. This appears to result in many husbands failing to register their polygamous marriages with the courts and thus an underreporting of the practice.

A classic polygamy gossip story contains such elements as power, fame, wealth, violence between wives, a scorned first wife and a betrayed second wife. One such popular story featured a senior politician the polygamous husband, a daughter of a top civil servant his first wife, a beauty queen his second wife, a media woman his potential third wife, a leading businessman the second potential husband of politician's potential third wife!, a society lady the first wife of the businessman and a member of royalty the first husband, now divorced, of businessman's first wife. The story was interesting because the media woman moved from one man to another as a potential second/third wife, going, I was told, for a bigger fish. In a special twist to the story, her second choice as husband ultimately died, and his first wife and potential second wife had a fight literally over his deathbed. The whole affair outraged high society while at the same time delighting them, ensuring that the story circulated in town for months.

Gossip stories are usually exchanged when women are together without their husbands, although men might also join in the gossip if they are present. At special functions such as religious celebrations or weddings, women are free to talk since men and women sit and eat separately.

Another favourite gossip exchange venue is ladies' lunches. I once attended a power-lunch with two senior female civil servants and a wealthy business woman at a Japanese restaurant. We had our own little room, surrounded by rice-paper walls, meaning that our conversation could be heard far and wide. Although everybody in the restaurant knew who she was (her name and title having been announced by the waiter) the business woman spoke constantly and very loudly and criticised government policies and people. I took it down to her power and position that she felt at ease talking publicly about such matters.

Invariably the conversation strayed onto the latest affairs and marriages, and before long polygamy came up. At this point, the loud lady started to hush us up and make gestures to the paper walls to indicate that other people could hear us. Apparently polygamy was considered a sensitive topic! - Even more off-limits than something as contentious in Malaysia as government politics. But then it involves people known to the women, perhaps part of their extended families, or networks of friends, family or business partners, so it might make sense to be discrete. It is also an indication that polygamy to some degree is still considered an extraordinary event on the fringe of acceptability, something that one gossips about, something slightly shady and a bit scandalous to be passed on with fright and delight, at least among women.

A typical story told at one such lunch was of man who got consent from his first wife for taking a second wife by putting the consent form in a stack of papers she was to sign for a jointly owned company. Thus she did not actually read the form but just signed it. The point of such stories seems not to be whether they in fact happened, but rather to relate how men often trick and hurt their wives when engaging in polygamy. The stories in turn contribute to create anxiety among women, because of the ever present threat that they could be next to be tricked into polygamy.

The much gossip exchanged among women about polygamy has indeed contributed to create a feeling among them that there are a growing number of polygamous unions in the Kuala Lumpur area. Statistically, however, there is very little polygamy in Malaysia, estimated to make up about 2-4% of all marriages. Based on such numbers, it is easy to dismiss it as a rare occurrence.

One does not have to live in Kuala Lumpur long, though, to discover that the reality is different, at least among wealthy Malays. Underreporting of polygamous marriages makes official statistics lower than actual numbers. But judging from the much talk among women, polygamy also appears to have become more common among the wealthy, because more men can now afford to have more than one wife. Traditionally, polygamy has been associated with rulers and royalty, although Malays of wealth and social standing also practise polygamy. Their marriages are usually limited to two wives, since economic, social and personal obstacles tend to prevent them from marrying the four permitted. Malay royalty or men of great wealth and position often marry more than two wives.

In contrast, polygamy rates are low among the vast majority of Malays. Among the several reasons for its limited practice is first and foremost the general reluctance og women to be part of polygamous unions. Polygamy among ordinary Malays often leads to divorce of either the first or second wife. Women, however, may not always be able to obtain a divorce from a polygamous husband if they are unhappy about the situation. Secondly, polygamy is legally but not necessarily socially sanctioned for Malays. Thirdly, it is associated with economic status, although poverty does not necessarily prevent men from being polygamous. As Nazriah, a 33-year old entrepreneur, complained, "now taxi-drivers want to be polygamous".

Most women I talked to in Kuala Lumpur were against the practice of polygamy. "The worst nightmare of a woman is for her husband to take a second wife," Rashidah, a 42-year old director, emphatically told me. According to her, "polygamy is the last thing a woman would want". Rashidah is the first wife of a man who secretly took a young girl as a second wife.

There are, of course, women who speak well of the practice, but this is usually because they were or are themselves in polygamous unions. Most of the women who find polygamy acceptable tend to be second wives who have chosen to enter polygamous marriage. First wives rarely choose to participate in polygamy, and may often unknowingly be forced into it by their husbands. Most women who are not in polygamous unions therefore tend to sympathise with first wives and speak against the practice, because potentially, they could become first wives themselves.

At the same time, however, most women acknowledge a man's right in Islam to take more than one wife, granted that he meets the conditions for engaging in polygamy. The condition most often mentioned by women is that the husband must be fair to all wives, and give each wife equally of his emotional, physical and material support. The acknowledgement of a man's right to be polygamous is thus carefully weighed against the reality of men who are generally seen as unable to live up to these conditions.

Zainab, a 47-year old executive, distinguishes between her own potential polygamous marriage and her parents' harmonious polygamous marriage, in which her father, his three wives and 14 children all lived in the same house. She feels it could never work in her own marriage, not because she is an independent working woman, but because her husband lacks her father's character, and would not be able to be fair to both wives. She feels her husband would neglect her. This is a widespread view, as another woman, Nazriah lamented, "Men abuse their right to polygamy, because it is impossible. There is not enough time to be equally with several wives".

For most women polygamy is therefore only a conditional, not an absolute, right in Islam. It should not be engaged in unless the man is able to live up to the set conditions. And by all accounts, that requires an extra-ordinary man. For the most part, women feel that a polygamous union breaks the bond between husband and wife, and consider it an act of betrayal towards the first wife and her children. Especially when it involves a secret second marriage - as it often does - which the first wife only discovers accidentally.

According to Rokiah, a 58-year old retired school teacher, whose own mother was a second wife, polygamy is very hard on women: They feel discarded, useless, betrayed by their husbands and have problems dealing with it. She described how her friend nearly went mad when her husband after 30 years of marriage took another wife.

When I asked women what they would feel and do if, hypothetically, their husband took another wife, 44-year old director Khatija's comment was typical, "Religiously, I would have to accept it. But personally I could not. Religiously it is his right, if he can take care of all of them in the same way, which is very difficult. But if he did that, and it is theoretical, he would be breaking the partnership, the contract that we have."

Despite this common contractual view of marriage, most women had not talked to their husbands about their feelings regarding polygamy. A few women had discussed it with their husbands, or intend to if they get married, normally to point out that they find polygamy unacceptable and would want a divorce if he took another wife. Other women, like Khatija, take a more indirect approach, talking about the 'whys' with her husband when someone they know or hear of engages in polygamy.

Generally then, women might talk about polygamy among themselves, among family and friends, but less so with the person who is the most important in this matter, their husbands. It might have to do with the different perspectives on polygamy which seem to exist between men and women. Men often condone it, and in such a situation women might prefer not to probe to deeply into the subject with their husbands.

This became particularly clear during my conversations with Ashidah, a consultant, who childless at 36 was living in fear that her husband might marry another woman in order to get children. Both men and women tend to consider childlessness a valid reason for polygamy. Ashidah has never discussed polygamy with her husband, for as she pointed out, "What if he asks me permission to marry someone else because he wants to have children?".

Women in her situation might not want to discuss polygamy with their husbands because once it is established that he really wants children, polygamy or even divorce might become an option, making their relationship more difficult. For Ashidah, the matter is better left unsaid, "for it is one thing that I cannot control".

Indeed, trying to reconcile men and women's views on polygamy often seemed an uneasy co-existence of necessity. Asmah, a 55-year old manager, told me, exasperated, "My husband once made a remark about someone who married another wife, 'they are all very happy'. The remark has stayed with me, I cannot forget it, I feel he did not understand it at all."

The fact that many women have not or do not plan to discuss polygamy with their husbands does not mean that they have not given it a great deal of thought or discussed it at length with other women. When talking to women about how they would deal with being in a polygamous marriage, I found, unsurprisingly, as many views on how to deal with polygamy as there are women.

If one imagines women's acceptance of polygamy as a continuum, at one end there were women like Aziza, a 29-year old newly married lawyer, who unconditionally rejected polygamy. She would not stand for it, now or later, and would leave her husband if he took another wife. She has told him so in no uncertain terms. Aziza belongs to a new generation of urban Malay women, highly educated and groomed to be independent. Their family background (middle and upper middle class) and schooling have taught them to speak their minds as women, also towards men.

Kartini, a 29-year old unmarried lawyer, belongs to the same group of young urban professional women, but takes a more pragmatic view towards polygamy, "I am too weak to handle polygamy, but infidelity is out, so I might be more forgiving in the real situation. .... But a woman has a choice too, she does not need to accept it, she can put it in the marriage contract, a type of pre-nuptual agreement, that she will want a divorce if her husband takes a second wife."

I did not meet any woman whom I could place at the other end of the continuum, namely the total and unconditional acceptance of polygamy. What I did find were many older women theoretically willing to accept polygamy for the right reasons. They pointed out that when they were younger, they would not have accepted it, but now felt that they could perhaps accept it.

Rohani, a 46-year old chief executive, explained how previously, she would have left her husband if he took another wife since, "I can take care of myself". But now, if his reasons are right and she has no grounds for saying no she might accept it, even if she could still leave and take care of herself.

One reason why women might accept polygamy when they are older is that it appears to become more of a 'threat' or reality for them once they are in middle age, and their husband start looking for younger or other women. Telling yourself that you can accept polygamy might allow you to deal with the fact should it happen. Another reason why older women might accept it is that many feel remarriage is not an option once they are in middle age. They might fear loneliness or a financial and social fall from grace if they divorce their husbands, and so remain married.

Women's views of polygamy, then, might change over the course of their married life, often from absolute rejection to reluctant acceptance. This age-based shift in women's view of polygamy might be one way of dealing with what, judging from their much talk about polygamy, an increasing number of especially middle-aged women in urban Malaysia face in their marriage.

The much talking about polygamy among Malay women is thus related to the much gossip exchanged among women in the family, the network of friends, the office, or which is read in the papers and magazines. Gossip creates a sense of an increase in the number of polygamous marriages among urban Malays, which in turn creates anxiety among women about whether their husband will be the next to marry a second wife. In this self-reinforcing process, which highlights the 'threat of polygamy' for women, polygamy becomes the object of ever more talking and gossiping among women. It may be that the sharing of anxieties and perhaps personal experiences of polygamy is a form of stress relief practiced by women. Telling your story or learning about others in similar situations may bring some relief to unhappy and anxious wives.

Gossip is also used strategically by women who are in or faced with being in polygamous unions. Getting your children or your parents-in-law on your side might help you avert your husband engaging in polygamy for fear of family sanctions. If you are a second wife, spreading the word about your husband's first wife can be an attempt to get allies on your side, get greater attention from your husband and achieve the ultimate, namely to get your husband to divorce his first wife. Similarly, spreading the word about your husband's second wife can discredit her, and it seems that it is more common for men to divorce their second than their first wife. Alerting your friend that her husband has an eye for another woman, can help her deal with the situation before it gets out of her reach.

Zainab, who grew up in a polygamous household, had been married for 25 years when she heard through friends that her husband wanted to marry a young girl. Rather than confront him directly, she told him that if he wanted to marry a 19-year old she would sign the permission, but then wanted to lead her own life without interference from him. So he knows that she knows, and this way, she averted him marrying the other woman.

But the much gossiping and talking about polygamy, and the anxiety it generates among women, is probably nothing new, for Malay men, whether rich or poor, have always had the potential to become polygamous. Polygamy has always loomed large in the consciousness of Malays, no matter what the actual prevalence of it was. Polygamy has been and is seen as a burden that the Malay woman must potentially bear and be prepared for in marriage.

As Asmah recounted, her father encouraged her to get an education before marrying, so she would be able to take care of herself in case her husband let her down, "Your husband can marry four wives, you will be left with four walls."


Miriam Zeitzen is a Ph.D.-student at the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University in England. The Danish Research Council has funded her work in Cambridge.

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