Malaysia: The Impact of Polygamy

The Nutgraph

A landmark study on polygamy in Malaysia has cast doubt on whether husbands in polygamous marriages are able to treat their wives and children equally as intoned by the Quran. The study, conducted by Sisters in Islam in collaboration with academics from several local universities, found that while almost 80% of husbands interviewed said they could be fair, their wives disagreed. Researcher Masjaliza Hamzah said just over half of the second wives interviewed in the study said their husbands could be fair. Among first wives, only 35% shared this view. “Among the wives, the first wife is the most dissatisfied. She experiences the strongest effects as she is able to compare the polygamous marriage with when she was in a monogamous marriage. In many cases, they expressed sadness, a sense of being wronged and betrayal,” Masjaliza said.

Even though polygamy is seen as a male right provided for in the Quran, in some Muslim communities, including in Malaysia, there are other interpretations of what is permissible in Islam. Several Muslim countries either restrict or ban polygamy and cite Surah al-Nisa 4:3, which states that if a man fears that he cannot deal justly with several wives, he should only marry one. Associate Professor Datin Dr Rashidah Shuib, one of the study’s researchers, said a proper understanding of polygamous families was needed to enable policies to be formulated based on facts. For example, she said that “giliran”, or taking turns equally and fairly in a polygamous marriage, was ideal, but in reality, it is difficult to carry out. “Policies should be formulated not based on ideals, but on reality,” she said.

Masjaliza, Rashidah and four other researchers presented their findings from the peninsula-wide study, titled The Institution of Polygamous Families and Marriage, at a forum in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia on 15 July 2010.


First Wives Most Impacted

The study indicated that a majority of first wives suffered negative social impacts after their husbands’ second marriages, although there were others who were satisfied with the situation. Of the first wives interviewed, 45.6% were dissatisfied with their polygamous marriages, compared with 39.3% who were satisfied. This was in sharp contrast with second wives, 68% of whom were satisfied with their marriages. Only 18.8% said they were dissatisfied. Additionally, when a man took a second wife, his first marriage was often put under strain. Over 40% of first wives in the study said they argued more with their husbands after finding out about their husbands’ intentions to marry again. A majority of them also indicated that their love, respect and trust for their husbands deteriorated after discovering their intentions.


Men Benefit Most

“The husband is the family member who is most successful in fulfilling his needs and desires. He has access to more than one sexual partner every night, whereas his wives will need to take their turn,” Masjaliza noted. Hence, it comes as no surprise that 65% of the husbands interviewed would recommend polygamy as a family institution. But only 25% of first wives and about 50% of second wives held this view.


Impact on Children

A majority of the children of first wives also demonstrated negative emotions towards their fathers marrying again. Up to 60% said they were disappointed when they found out about their fathers’ polygamy. More than half were angry and sad. Hardly any felt happy, proud or loved upon hearing the news. Interestingly, the study also revealed that in time, the children of first wives recorded “indifference” as the dominant emotion towards their fathers’ polygamous marriages.

Head researcher Professor Dr Norani Othman said during the in-depth interviews conducted with children of polygamous marriages, they explained that being indifferent was a way of coping emotionally with disappointment and distress. Meanwhile, more than 55% of the children of second wives said they were “indifferent” about their fathers’ polygamy upon first knowing about it. This figure rose to over 60% when asked how they felt about it currently. Despite different emotions expressed by the children of first and second wives, over 90% of both groups of children said they would not contract polygamous marriages, based on their own experiences.


Reasons for Polygamy

The top three reasons cited by husbands for marrying again were to validate their love for their second wives, and to avoid adultery and khalwat. This was roughly echoed by second wives. A majority of first wives, however, cited “to satisfy lust” as their husbands’ main reason for marrying again, followed by to avoid adultery (46.3%), and then only to validate their love for their second wives (36.3%).The study showed that almost half of the men and women interviewed either rarely or never told their friends and colleagues about their polygamous families.“The survey is not just about women’s or men’s experiences with polygamy, but to find out the challenges of living in a polygamous family,” said Norani.

The first-of-its-kind study examined the effects of polygamy on family members – financially, emotionally, as well as socially. At least 1,500 were conducted among husbands, first and second wives, and children in their adulthood from first and second marriages.

By Ding Jo-Ann