THE period of austerity that many Saudis are facing today has helped arrest some of the excesses that had become the norm. One peculiar one that flourished in the oil boom era was the need for men to take on second wives.
It had become fashionable for middle-aged men in this part of the world to seek a younger bride, all the while they were still married. In Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf, it was not unusual for such men to chat about this prospect at their weekly diwaniyahs or men-only clubs.
To help promote the union, religious scholars issued several fatwas that identified several forms of marriage as perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of Islam. There is the misyar marriage, the weekend marriage, and the friendship marriage. And more derivatives are creatively being added to this growing list. And by men!
I’ve often wondered if the virtuous men issuing such edicts do not pause to ponder the effects of such righteous proclamations on our fragile society. And our societies in the region are indeed fragile today as the Middle East is interspersed with wars and faltering economies.
While Islam does indeed permit polygamy, the conditions are so restricted and severe that it is practically impossible for anyone today to adhere to them strictly. And while our religion sanctions such unions, it does not treat the matter frivolously. There must be clearly justifiable reasons such as if the first wife being unable to bear her husband children, or is averse to any physical advances by her husband.
Furthermore, equality in all matters is demanded when considering another partner, and while allowances are made for matters of the heart, in just about every other aspect one is required to demonstrate total parity. And in today’s times, that is easier said than done.
The existing family structure comes under attack when men in the prime of their economic earning power and affluence decide to forsake their partners of twenty years or more and who have borne them three or four children for younger, sleeker spouses. In most cases I know of, the men decided against divorcing their first wives and instead chose to open newer homes to house their latest ornament.
Often at the cost of seriously neglecting the first wife and the children, these men take to water like fish, seeking comfort in their new relationships, most of which are agreed to on the pre-communal conditions of no more children. It is the women entering such unions who invariably pay a heavy price. Their rights are usurped subtly as they discover they are not much more than a pleasant past time.
The dynamics that lead women to consider such unions are varied. In a strict Arab society, women’s roles often take a back seat. Without a man, any man, in her life, a woman feels vulnerable. Then there is the fear of spinsterhood, or the freedom from a very authoritarian father. And in spite of pre-communal agreements, the desire to bear children remains an unspoken desire burning within, and she may eventually get her way.
In the early days of their union, one may notice subtle springs in the steps of these polygamous men as they grandly announce to their associates at the diwaniyah of their latest acquisitions. But like all gilded ornaments, age tarnishes it all. And alarmingly, some of these Romeos are now considering a third or fourth union, in quest for more glitter. And going about it very discreetly this time around!
In this era though, only those blessed with deep pockets and such inclinations could consider such a course. The rest can just fantasize.
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