“Unconstitutional, against the sharia, inhumane.” According to the Indian Muslim women, polygamy must be cast aside.
28-year-old Reshma, a Muslim woman from India, appealed to the court in order to prevent her husband from entering additional wedlock without her – i.e. his wife’s – written permission. Reshma’s case has sparked the debate surrounding polygamy among the Muslim community in India.
The woman also accuses her husband of domestic violence and sexual abuse; he puts forward similar charges against her. Reshma wants the High Court of Delhi to influence the Indian government so that it would ratify the laws regulating the “regressive practice” of bigamy and polygamy.
Polygamy in India
Behind the personal drama of this couple stands an ancient tradition of plural marriage. In India, this practice is only allowed among the Muslims, as well as some indigenous populations. The Indian law validates all marriages formed under the religious doctrines, which are obeyed by the various believers found among the Indian citizens.
However, polygamy in India does not only exists among the aforementioned groups. According to the census from 1961 – the last one containing such information – the plural-marriage was the least popular among the Muslims (5,7%) compared to other religious groups. Polygamy occurred with the highest frequency among, for example, Buddhists (7,97%) or Jains (6,72%).
Shahabuddin Jakub Kuraishi is an Islamic researcher. He says that in India: “there is a widespread assertion that every other Muslim has two wives”. The Islamophobic commentators are afraid that polygamy among Muslims means conceiving a lot of children. And a large number of Muslim children would threaten the Hindu majority in India. Such claims are hard to reckon with, though, if we consider that believers of Islam make up merely 14% of the subcontinent whereas Hindus constitute 80% of it.
A debate for feminists and fundamentalists
The critique of Muslim polygamy unites those who otherwise differ in their worldviews. Namely, Indian feminists and the Hindu fundamentalist from the Indian People’s Party (BJP). Yet, the two groups diverge in terms of what intentions drive them towards advocating for plural-marriage prohibition.
Zakia Soman is the foundress of the BMMA organization – Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. She claims that polygamy is “horrendous: morally, socially, and legally”. The fact that “it has legal status is what makes it problematic”. Her opinion, along with the voices of other Muslim feminists, resonates with the UN’s stance on the topic. The experts assert that polygamy is a form of “unacceptable discrimination towards women.”
Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalistic Indian People’s Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposes the introduction of the Uniform Civil Code. This controversial legislation would mean that marriages, divorces, and inheritance would be no longer subject to religious laws. All of the mentioned would be settled under the same set of rules concerning all Indian citizens. Nonetheless, some Muslims believe that BJP does not care as much about the well-being of women. Rather, it cares about creating new ways of marginalizing and stigmatizing the Muslim community.
28-year-old Reshma, who awaits the opinion of the High Court regarding her case, has no doubts. “Inhumane” polygamy should be “regulated to limit this difficult situation in which many Muslim women found themselves in.”
Translated by Julia Lasiota.