Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Multiple Marriages Under Scrutiny

“I Do, I Do, I Do” - human rights commission proposes restrictions on men having several wives.
By Parween Talwasa

At the age of 35, Kabul jewellery shop owner Bismellah is engaged to his third wife – because he can afford to. “I have a good life and I don’t have any financial problems,” he told IWPR. “I provide great food for both of my wives and I will do the same for my third.”


His first and second wives are not happy with this arrangement, but they feel they can do nothing about it because Bismellah has total control of the household and beats them if they don’t obey.


Nasima, his second wife, complained bitterly, “ We have to obey strict rules – if we don’t we could be killed.” Spogmai, his first wife, said, “I don’t blame my husband - I blame my destiny.”


Bismellah’s rules are that his wives don’t bother him with their complaints, fights or problems, and that they don’t leave the house without his permission – even to go to the doctor or visit their parents.


Yet Shukriya, a woman from a poor family who is engaged to be Bishmellah’s third wife, says she’s delighted about her future. Bismellah has given her father a lot of money for her hand in marriage, and she envisages a rosy future of fancy clothes and jewellery.


Local interpretation of the Koran is that a man may take multiple wives if he can treat them equally - financially, sexually, and emotionally.


Retired judge Qazi Mohammed Ilyas said it is very difficult for men to meet these conditions. “If a man is not fair to all his wives, he will face the music both in this world and on Doomsday,” he said.


But men who take second or third wives simply because they feel they can treat them equally appear to be breaking the law.


According to Ghulam Rabbani Adeeb, a senior official in the ministry of justice, the authorities follow the Koran’s stipulation that a man can take a second wife for the following reasons: if his first wife is disabled from illness, can’t have children, or is negligent in her duties as a wife; to support a woman who has no family; if there are many more women than men in the community because of war.


A man can divorce his wife at any time, but he should pay the mahar (an amount agreed upon at marriage, similar to a prenuptial agreement, as prescribed in the Koran). A woman can divorce her husband, if he’s impotent, cannot provide her with food or basic needs or if he mistreats her without any reason.


An eleven-member government human rights commission has recommended that multiple marriages should not be allowed unless a woman cannot bear children, but even then, the man must appeal to the courts for this exception.


Amena Afzali, one of four female members of the commission, has also suggested that a man’s first wife should have the power to veto his decision to take a second. “If husbands take care to get the approval of their first wife before marrying again, I am sure that most of them would not get married for a second time.”


The commission also wants to require that all marriages be registered with local authorities.


“We respect Islamic law, but we want to confine the opportunities for a man having more than one wife,” said commission member Farid Hamidi, who believes the Koran has been overridden by local culture and tradition, such as arranged marriages.


Several men interviewed by IWPR say they married again because they were forced to wed people they didn’t love.


Mohammad Amin, a resident of Ghazni province who recently acquired a second wife, said, “I was a child when my parents married me to a girl in our village. I was not happy to marry that girl - I did not even like her. So I decided to marry someone of my own choice. Now I am enjoying life with my second wife.”


For some wealthy and powerful Afghan men, having a second or third wife has become a kind of status symbol. Haji Abdullah, a senior official in the food and light industries ministry, got married for the fourth time earlier this month, and says he’s quite happy about it. “My wives don’t fight with each other because I made separate houses for them,” he told IWPR.


But such multiple marriages are often difficult to manage, some husbands admit.


Zabihullah, a 55-year-old resident of Kabul who works for Kabul Radio, has been married to two wives for more than 20 years and has grown-up children from both relationships.


“I have trouble keeping the peace between my two wives,” he said. “When I buy groceries, I myself put them away. If I give them to my first wife, my second wife minds, and if I give them to my second wife, the first one minds. Women are generally touchy, but they become more so when they have to share a husband.”


Zabihullah said that when he visits friends with one wife and sees how little trouble they have he regrets having two.


Danish Karokhel is an IWPR staff reporter. Parween Tulwasa is an independent journalist in Kabul.