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Editorial | Normalisation Of Polygamy In Pakistan Must End

Reports of TikTok celebrity Hareem Shah’s marriage to a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) provincial minister from Sindh have been doing the rounds since yesterday. The TikToker confirmed her marriage to the media but stopped short of naming her husband, saying that she will reveal the name once he manages to ‘sort things out’ with his first wife.

PPP MPAs have since been trying to clear their names in response to media queries about Hareem Shah’s claim. Rumours about Shah’s links with politicians are not unusual, but this episode is a sad reminder of the extent to which polygamy is normalised in Pakistan. Media outlets created sensational headlines out of Hareem Shah’s claim that she married a provincial minister and that his first wife is unaware of the marriage. But no one batted an eyelid at the man having violated Pakistan’s law by failing to seek his first wife’s permission before contracting a second marriage.

According to Pakistan’s Family Law, a man is required to submit written permission from his first wife if he wishes to marry again. Since most women are unaware of the law, men are able to get away with marrying without their first wives’ knowledge and even despite their displeasure.

The normalisation of polygamy is linked to the glamorous portrayal of the practice in movies and dramas as well as its unending references in mainstream comedy in Pakistan. Moreover, men make use of the Quranic verse allowing four marriages in their defence and often present their act of polygamy as compliance of an Islamic tenet. Religious scholars are also often seen on TV advocating four marriages on the grounds that it will help women who have been widowed or divorced at a young age.

It is therefore important to remember that the verse allowing four marriages is selectively interpreted. The translation of said Quranic verse is as follows:

“If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one … that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.”

It is clear that the permission given to men to marry four times is subject to conditions and specific instructions have been laid out in this regard. First, the permission was given so the orphans left behind after the killing of their fathers could be raised and taken care of by men who marry the mothers of these orphans. Further, a condition has been placed to exercise justice among all four wives. The verse then suggests that maintaining this kind of equality among wives won’t likely be possible, in which case men have been told not to commit injustice.

Religious scholars who remind their followers of the permission to marry four times rarely mention the strict conditions which are to be fulfilled. Men therefore do not take the complete verse into account and selectively quote it to justify their act of deceiving their first wives to marry again.

It is therefore about time this normalisation of polygamy is brought to an end. In a landmark judgment issued in 2017, a judge in Lahore jailed a man for six months and imposed a fine of 200,000Rs for his second marriage without the first wife’s consent.

His first wife had successfully argued that her husband violated the Family Law by marrying without her permission. The court had rejected the man’s argument that Islam allowed him to have four wives.

More recently, in August last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that it was mandatory for a man to get consent from his first wife or an arbitration council before marrying for the second time.

The practice of unethical polygamy, which is almost always the result of a man’s disregard for his wife and her rights, can be curbed if more women are made aware of the fact that the law does not allow their husbands to marry again without their consent.

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Naya Daur