Big Love, Saudi-Style

A story making the rounds in (Arabian/Persian) Gulf media concerns a Saudi man who proposed to a woman, who then made her acceptance of his marriage offer conditional on his simultaneously marrying two of her friends. Because polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia, this isn’t surprising; what’s more surprising is that the wife-to-be proposed that the husband-to-be take a second and third wife, and then stipulated who those wives would be. Know your co-wives, I guess. (It’s a Big Love episode in Arabic.)

At first the man resisted. Maybe he didn’t like her friends? We don’t know. Maybe he didn’t want to pay for three households. But relatives and friends pressured him to agree, and so he eventually went ahead and married all three, getting separate apartments for each of them. Which he had to. You see, many readings of Islamic law recognize the right of a man to marry up to four wives, though usually he must seek each wife’s permission (and the wife can stipulate monogamy in her marital contract.)

And, the man must endeavor to treat each wife equally, which means usually polygamy is an extremely rare practice. I’ve only heard of it practiced among the very rich and very poor. After all, who can pay for more than one wife? Being in a rentier economy like Saudi Arabia helps. But even then. In my years of travel throughout the Muslim world, I’ve literally never met a person with a second spouse. And I’ve met a lot of people. But this story got people talking, in part because of the uniqueness of the circumstances.

Now, you could ask: What the hell’s going through this woman’s mind? I confess I have no idea. I imagine a request to interview her would be impossible, and not kindly received. But I’ve heard some theories. Over coffee—it’s quite a matter of gossip—I’ve heard some folks suggest a spousal stratagem. This (first) wife expects her husband to want, at some point, to marry additional wives, so she figured, she may as well go ahead and choose who her co-wives will be.

That way things’ll be less awkward. But why then not propose three co-wives, so her husband just can’t marry anyone else? Ever? I don’t know. File this under: Not your usual fare. Polygamy is not just a very uncommon practice, but it’s actively looked down on in many places. Among many Pakistanis, for example, it’s viewed with deep skepticism, if not disdain. In many Muslim countries, the practice is legally restricted (say, Morocco), with the law forcing husbands to prove means and uncoerced consent. In Turkey it’s banned altogether.

So I’m hoping you don’t take the wrong lesson from this. Just because some readings of Islamic law theoretically allow a practice does not mean it has to be practiced; in the case of polygamy, it’s also really not a concern for the overwhelming majority of Muslims. When I mentioned traveling the Muslim world, include in those itineraries American and European Muslims. It’s pretty much a non-practice. Until someone comes along and produces the Big Love of the Middle East; there are, after all, substantive differences. The four wives cannot be related. There cannot be more than four wives. And they must all be maintained at the same standard.

So when it comes time to upgrade from the apartment, it’ll be three upgrades all around. Good luck, sir.

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