Polygamy Is Brutal For The Wives
MEWSo started its Polygamy Matters programme back in 2017, in partnership with Greenwich University, because we came across too many women trapped in polygamous relationships not of their making.
Women came to us upset and depressed when they found out they were not their husband’s only wife. They got married in good faith in a religious marriage ceremony called Nikah, believing it to be legal, only to find out later that it isn't, if they didn't also go through a civil marriage ceremony. Or they were forced into the marriage by family. Or they put up with him acquiring more wives because she and her family were too ashamed to get a divorce.
Whatever the reason, it’s estimated there are some 20,000 polygamous marriages in Britain* today and signs are that these numbers are rising. (*The Men with Many Wives, Channel 4, Sept 2014.)
Polygamy in the UK is most commonly practised by Muslim communities who adhere to Sharia Law. Though Sharia Law permits it, it is still illegal in the country and so is rarely spoken about publicly. However, Sharia Law also stipulates that all wives in polygamous relationships must be treated equally.
This should ensure that each wife has her own separate household with no difference between the quality of the housing, the domestic provisions or the income of the families. This is so that no wife is set ‘above’ or ‘beneath’ another. The husband therefore must have sufficient means to be able to keep more than one wife.
Nothing is Equal
Unfortunately, in MEWSo’s experience this is not the reality.
Too many wives in polygamous marriages suffer emotional distress, destitution and abandonment. Research also shows that such relationships are often a site for domestic and/or sexual abuse and violence*. The women have no idea about their legal rights or lack of them, and either they are abandoned to bring up the children alone with no financial assistance, or they lose their children to the ‘husband’ because they have no residence papers and no legal marriage. (*Rehman, Yasmine 2016: ‘Refusing to recognise polygamy in the West: a solution or a soundbite?’ Open Democracy, 11 July 2016.)
Research has found that 85% of women in the UK who discovered their husband has another wife subsequently suffered depression, and that the children in these relationships were very negatively affected, often feeling disconnected from their peers at school*. (*Rehman, Yasmin 2013: ‘“It begin with sister”: Polygyny and Muslims in Britain’ Moving in the Shadows: violence in the lives of minority women and children (Farnham:Ashgate) pp.185-201.)
The impact on both wives and children can be horrendous.
Have to share their husband
Are financially restricted or neglected
Suffer the judgement of others within their community
Can find little information to help them as the subject is taboo
Have no bereavement benefit if her husband dies
Have no rights should they ‘divorce’. Sharia Law limits her divorce rights
Loses any inheritance, also under Sharia Law
Can lose her children as Social Services is unclear when it comes to sorting out child custody
And wives from abroad have little or no rights to settle in the UK.
Can suffer mental health issues at the unfair treatment of themselves and their mother by their father
Will have limited contact with him
Can suffer emotional neglect from him
Can suffer more harshly going through any separation process
Can experience financial neglect
Can be acutely embarrassed by, or unable to explain, their family dynamic because the family set up is taboo and illegal
Will get little help from school, the GP or other agencies ignorant of the family situation
And, will naturally be negatively affected by any abuse and violence within in the family.
Through our pilot project, MEWSo learned a lot about engaging and supporting women trapped in polygamous marriages. Re-started in October 2021, with the help of the Lottery Community Fund, and re-named Family Matters, the workshops use creative tools that encourage women to take part in ways that help them gradually recognise and come to terms with their experiences.
Working in close collaboration with Dr Elena Vacchelli, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Greenwich, our six-month programme of workshops use storytelling techniques that encourage and inspire women to share their stories. Many will speak on behalf of ‘a friend’ until they are able to admit that the story is theirs. We use visual body-mapping tools to help them visualise their hurt, and an activity called ‘word cafe’ where they link words that demonstrate their situation.
These workshops build trust and communication between us and the women, and amongst the women themselves. And, the communication works both ways as the women are always invited to give feedback that will help our workshops evolve and improve.
As a result, we now offer one-to-one attention for any woman who feels they need it, alongside the workshops. Also, as part of our bid to offer a bespoke community service, we:
Raise awareness and inform these women of their legal rights
Invite female role models to speak about their own experiences of standing up for themselves
Give advice and support on day-to-day issues, encouraging the women to heal and become more independent
Offer advice and guidance on education, job searching and learning new skills
Provide emotional support through counselling and befriending sessions, and networking where they can make new friends
Help protect women dealing with domestic abuse using our solicitors to issue non-molestation orders.
We are also sharing our expertise, through presentations and talks, with like-minded sister charities and other relevant organisations to better ensure the protection and safety of some of the most hard to reach and vulnerable women in our communities.
Through these workshops, and in addition to our regular services, we aim to improve the emotional wellbeing and mental health of women in polygamous relationships, improve their financial independence and help them rebuild their lives and the lives of their children.
Founder and Executive Director of MEWSo