The Men with Many Wives: the British Muslims who practise polygamy
The Telegraph — It is estimated that as many as 20,000 polygamous Muslim marriages exist in the UK. In a Channel 4 documentary this week, director Masood Khan will delve into the community of British Muslim polygamists to find out “what makes these people tick” and how a religious group is able to put its own practices above UK law.
Khan was drawn to the subject after hearing about women in Britain – mostly well-educated, third- or fourth-generation immigrants or Western converts – who were considering polygamy a “lifestyle choice”, embracing the idea of the part-time husband.
Khan talks about meeting one such career woman: “She was a gobby Northerner who had quite a senior job at the Home Office. She recently got divorced and said, ‘I don’t have time to have a bloke around all the time. I just want to see him maybe twice a week, so it works perfectly if he’s got another wife who can take care of all his cooking and cleaning.’”
In 2010, London Mayor Boris Johnson’s then 45-year-old ex-wife Allegra Mostyn-Owen married a Muslim man in secret. In an article for the Evening Standard she explained her approach to polygamy: “I realise that I am unlikely to conceive children [at my age] so we agreed that, so long as he chooses a good partner, then I am happy to live together in an extended family.”
But this intriguing application of Muslim teachings, based on a woman’s desire to maintain her independence and career without sacrificing a personal home life completely, is not the norm. In most polygamous marriages the idea of the dominant male provider and his numerous subordinate spouses prevails.
Khan points out that there is actually a lot of hostility towards polygamy within the Muslim community, adding: “You’ve got to remember that polygamy is practised worldwide by less than five per cent of Muslims.” Those who do support polygamous marriage often quote verse 4:3 of the Koran as an explicit endorsement of the practice: “Marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice to so many then one only.”
The families featured in Khan’s documentary are keen to assert that a man who enters into a polygamous marriage has a duty to provide for his family and treat all his wives justly. So what of Mohammed el Ghannay, the polygamist from Sheffield whose whole family relies on state benefits? He says proudly: “We’ve got three wives, one husband, 11 children: we are a family.” Yet his third wife, 26 years old and caring for three of his children hundreds of miles away in Morocco, is left alone for nine months of the year while Mohammed scrapes together enough money to visit them.
Shaheen Qureshi is a mother of eight also living on benefits after two failed marriages – the first an arranged marriage to her cousin in Pakistan and the second as the co-wife of a Muslim man in Bradford, whom she saw for a total of six months in their 10-year marriage.
She believes most men who pursue polygamy “are probably just going through a midlife crisis, and the Islamic marriage gives them the right to legitimate sex.” Underpinning this blatant inequality between husband and wife is the belief that men and women have different fundamental needs. Qureshi states matter-of-factly: “Men are polygamous by nature. Anybody who says they’re monogamous or they’ve never had an affair or a fling or even looked at somebody – they’re lying.”