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SAUDI ARABIA: 'Polygamy for women' article sparks public row in Egypt, Muslim world

January 5, 2010 |  6:50 am

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"Allow me to choose four, five or even nine men, just as my wildest imagination shall choose. I’ll pick them with different shapes and sizes, one of them will be dark and the other will be blond. ... [T]hey will be chosen from different backgrounds, religions, races and nations.”

So reads the first paragraph of Saudi journalist Nadine Bedair’s controversial article, recently published in the Egyptian independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, that raised the question of why only men are allowed to practice polygamy in Islam but not women.

As expected, the daring article, entitled "My Four Husbands and I," has stirred the pot among various groups.

Comments and criticism on the article continue to trickle in at a steady pace nearly a month after its publication, especially in Egypt, from where it originated. There, some Muslim authorities and lawmakers have attacked Bedair, condemning her writings as inflammatory and sexually provocative.

One of those who reacted with fury to her reflections on the alleged unfairness of polygamy in Islam was Sheikh Mohamed Gama’i. He lashed out at the Saudi journalist in an article published on an Egyptian news site, saying that “no woman has the right to attack our traditions in this manner” and said that Bedair ought to be “stopped.”

The article has also irritated some in Egyptian political circles, with one member of parliament reportedly filing a lawsuit against Al Masry Al Youm on accusations of promoting vice.

In her argument, Bedair suggests that either both men and women be permitted to take several spouses or that it’s time to make the rules more fair and come up with a new "map of marriage" in which men can’t marry more women just because they’ve gotten bored with the old one.

Islam allows men to marry up to four women at the same time, but only if they can treat the wives equally.

While Bedair's article has been met with a storm of criticism from some conservatives, there are those who believe she has a valid point and that her commentary has opened the door to an important, and long overdue, debate.

One Egyptian imam, Sheikh Amr Zaki, said the concept of polygamy simply doesn’t fit in with today’s societal structures and that the world would be better off if the practice was banned.

"In our world today, polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and, besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa," he was quoted as saying by the Guardian newspaper.

Heated discussions on the female polygamy article and polyandry in general have also surfaced in the Arab blogosphere and in Web forums in the region.

Echoing Sheikh Zaki’s argument for scrapping polygamy, one female commentator writing in online Muslim youth culture magazine Elan argued that there is just no need for the centuries-old practice in today's world.

“Back in the seventh century, men married multiple wives for practical reasons -- to forge alliances and strengthen communities, save widows from squalor, etc. But things are different now. I really don’t think single women need to be rescued anymore. If a woman remains unmarried at 30, I think she’ll survive. And if a man is so bored by one woman, then maybe he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place,” she wrote.

Some clerics insist, however, that male polygamy provides social security for widows and divorcees.

Then there are also those who believe that the article is not so much about polygamy as about highlighting women's rights issues in traditional Arab nations.

Saudi blogger Ahmed Al-Omran, who runs the popular blog Saudi Jeans, is one of those who takes on Bedair’s article from a different perspective, saying it does not so much argue for women's right to practice polygamy as it does to serve as a stinging criticism of the practice.

“People who attacked Nadine [Bedair] missed the point entirely. ... She was just trying to criticize polygamy by putting men in the shoes of women who accept to be part of such marriages. ... I think one of the good outcomes of Nadine's article is that it has rekindled the debate on women's issues in the country, especially those concerning how judges, and the legal system in general, treat women,” he told The Times in an e-mail conversation.

Women living in some conservative Arab countries are left with few rights, in principle, if their husband suddenly decides to marry an additional woman.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Islam allows men to marry up to four women at the same time, but only if they can treat the women equally. A recent article by a Saudi journalist challenges the concept of male polygamy in Islam. Credit: BBC

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