Polygamy in a Time of Pandemic:
Hard Times Ahead

Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif

Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia / photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

This article is part of our “Reflecting on COVID-19” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

As we transition into the month of June, Malaysia enters the twelfth week of its government-enforced Movement Control Order (MCO), which put its population of 32 million people under a swift and strict lockdown to contain the spread of CoVid-19. Almost overnight, offices and worship houses were closed, shopping malls shut down, and schools told not to reopen following a week-long semester break in March.

Many Malaysians who hunker down in anticipation for this storm to pass are taking this time as an opportunity to rekindle the intimacies of familial life that are often interrupted by other pressing daily commitments. For the country’s Muslim majority, who make up around 60% of the population, Ramadhan presents an opportune moment for this reconnection — this is the time when Muslims at home and across the world celebrate a spirit of commensality and conviviality that CoVid-19, it seems, has yet to break.

As I read about my friends and families in Malaysia breaking their fast with their loved ones around the same table, and worshiping together under the same roof during this holy month, I am also thinking of the numerous polygamous families across the country strained and separated by this pandemic. A paralyzed life in lockdown, so antithetical to the mobility required to maintain Malay polygamous marriages, might deepen existing ruptures and inequalities — both economic and emotional — between and within these families.

Even under the best of circumstances, Malay polygamous families are already living rather fragile and fragmented lives: many survive on intermittent access to the time, affections, and economic support of the husband-father, who oscillates between each wife and her children in different houses (often in different cities) at irregular intervals. But the travel restrictions imposed by the MCO make it even more difficult for polygamous husbands to keep up with their “rotation” (giliran) system of splitting their week between multiple households.

This precious time lost may also mean a corresponding decline in the economic investment of the husband, whose income would more likely be allocated to the family that commands most of his time and attention. In Malay polygamy, co-wives often compete for resources that are worryingly insufficient, and one family’s gain usually inevitably comes at the expense of another’s.

In times like these, women are propelled to draw on the support of their kinship network (i.e. mothers, sisters, and relatives) for childcare more than ever.

As a social anthropologist researching Malay marriage and intimacy in the past half-decade, I have engaged in a long-term, multi-sited ethnographic study of polygamy that includes accompanying Malay couples who eloped to Thailand to contract a polygamous marriage; closely following the bureaucratic pathway of polygamy applications and registrations in Malaysian Syariah Courts; interviewing polygamous husbands and (one of) their wives; and living in the home of the first wife of a multigenerational polygamous family in a tranquil Malay village. 

This varied and holistic ethnographic approach to studying polygamy has given me valuable insight and exposure to the multitude of polygamous experiences that many of my interlocutors sum up in one word: “susah” — a Malay term meaning “difficult”. And from the severely interrupted access to and distribution of resources between the families, this pandemic has further compounded the sense of anxiety and uncertainty for many Malay polygamous families I have come to know in my research. 

Polygamy — specifically, polygyny (one husband, multiple wives)1Polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands) is forbidden (haram) in Islam, making polygyny the only form of polygamy (plural marriage) permissible in Islam and in Malaysia. I use “polygyny” and “polygamy” interchangeably throughout. — makes up between three to five percent of Muslim marriages in Malaysia today, according to varying estimates. Recent official figures reveal that between 2010 to 2016, around 8,808 polygamy applications were approved by Syariah Courts throughout the country. This number, however, significantly excludes the undeclared polygynous marriages contracted abroad, which, according to my own research in the northeastern state of Kelantan bordering Thailand, is seeing a gradual incline. 

Despite its minimal prevalence in Malaysia today, polygyny is nothing short of a national preoccupation — discussions and debates about it permeate various spaces, from the remotest coffeeshops (warung kopi) to state parliamentary halls. The polygynous practices of local politicians, celebrities, and public preachers often headline the nation’s gossip columns. It is a sort of open secret and guilty pleasure for the general public, sensationalized by stories of secrecy, intrigues, and elopements.  

Polygyny in Malaysia is more than simply the stuff of scandal, however; it is a practice backed by the Islamic and Syariah legal authority of the Qur’an and the Islamic Family Law. Nevertheless, a general aversion towards this practice among women today suggests that its religious and legal legitimacy does not necessarily translate into widespread social acceptance. On the contrary, polygamy continues to be contentious on various grounds, and may face even more significant pressures under this pandemic. 

Polygyny in Islam & Malaysian Islamic Family Law

Polygyny is permitted in Islam,2There have been varying interpretations among Muslim scholars on this degree of permissibility for polygyny in Islam. Some defend this practice as an incontestable divine right, while others argue that equality between the wives as enjoined in the Qur’an is impossible, making monogamy, at best, a far more preferable and attainable ideal form of marriage than polygyny. based on the Qur’anic verse that states:  “And if you fear that you cannot do justice to orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two or three or four; but if you fear that you will not do justice, then (marry) marry only one … this is more proper that you may not do injustice” (Qur’an 4:3). 

The revelation of this verse occurred at a peculiar time in history, when many men in the Muslim army were martyred in the Battle of Uhud (625AD), leaving behind orphans and widows unprotected. Polygyny was thus designed to serve specific social purposes for Muslims: first, to offer socio-economic support to the vulnerable in society; and second, to ensure the continued survival and social reproduction of the nascent Muslim community. 

It is important to note that this Qur’anic verse did not introduce Arabian society to polygyny, which had already existed among the Arabs well before the advent of Islam. It did, however, impose a sense of order to their previously unregulated polygynous practices by limiting the number of permissible wives to four, and commanding men to treat their wives with justice and fairness. 

Visiting relatives (berkunjung) at tea time. Photo captured in the city of Batu Pahat, Johor, during fieldwork in 2015. Courtesy of the author.

Still, this expectation of equality between wives is impossible to achieve, as the Qur’an itself states: “And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you wish (it)…” (Qur’an 4:129).  

This certainly applies to affections and matters of the heart, which are unquantifiable and can never be divided equally between wives. As one Malay polygynous husband in his 60s I interviewed in Kuala Lumpur described to me, “Taking care of [his] feelings” for his two wives was perhaps “the most challenging” aspect of his nearly 30 years of polygyny (“Menjaga perasaan paling susah”) — sexual jealousy, suspicions of favoritism, and speculations of sorcery all demanded fortified strength and patience to navigate the emotional entanglement in polygyny. 

This makes it all the more crucial for polygynous husbands to be punctilious in providing material provisions, which are quantifiable and therefore more amenable to an equitable — if not equal — division between families. As the British anthropologist Rosemary Firth writes: “cent for cent, fish for fish” — what one wife receives, the other(s) too should receive in equal measure. 

This call for equality in polygyny is the cornerstone of the codification of polygyny in the Malaysian Syariah system. Under the current Malaysian Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act first enforced in 1984 (IFL), Muslim men may marry up to four wives at a time, on the condition that: 

  1. the proposed marriage is “just or necessary”; 
  2. they possess the economic capacity to financially support all existing and future dependents; 
  3. they can accord “just and equal” treatment to all wives; 
  4. the proposed marriage will not cause darar syar’ie (harm to her mind, body, religion, and property) to the existing wi(ves); and 
  5. the proposed marriage will not compromise the existing family’s standard of living. 

These conditions and procedures in the IFL were institutionalized in the Syariah to restrict male access to polygamy to those who have sufficient resources for this serious economic undertaking, and to ensure that they treat their wives with “fairness” (adil) to the best of their ability. However, since the 1990s, the IFL has undergone various amendments that have resulted in more lax conditions for polygyny. In 2006, for example, the fifth condition for polygyny in the IFL was removed, enabling judges in some states to approve polygyny applications even from men who could barely afford to provide for their multiple families above the poverty line. 

Various loopholes within the Syariah furthermore open up many “back doors” to polygyny that render these restrictions in the IFL impotent and ineffective. The most significant of these is the Malaysian Syariah Courts’ legalization of cross-border marriages contracted abroad, most popularly in Southern Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia. 

Marriage and motherhood are two defining features of Malay womanhood, but these, in polygyny, come at a heavy price.

Cross-border marriages are considered a matrimonial offence in the IFL, punishable by a fine of no more than RM1,000 (USD250), imprisonment of up to six months, or a combination of both. Nevertheless, they have gained traction in recent years, particularly among men who do not earn or own enough to financially qualify for polygyny under Malaysian Syariah law. The Malaysian state’s legalization of cross-border marriages enables men to circumvent its own existing requirements for polygyny by eloping to Thailand, where they may marry subsequent wives with greater discretion, and fewer questions asked by Thai Islamic authorities.  

This increasingly permissive legal infrastructure has significant demographic implications on expanding the accessibility to polygyny for men of lower socio-economic background, whose limited resources leave wives in polygyny and children in great economic and emotional risk. 

Malay Polygyny: Past & Present

Polygyny among Malays is traditionally — and still is, to this day — associated with the aristocratic elite. The Sultans and noblemen were better equipped with the wealth and resources needed to maintain multiple households compared to their subjects, who, up until the mid-20th century, were predominantly rural people living on the fruits of the earth and the sea. 

The Malay aristocracy’s exclusive claims to polygyny, however, gradually weakened in the 1980s, when Malaysia began experiencing a wave of Islamic revivalism alongside rapid economic growth and urbanization, which created a new Malay middle class with a fresh set of social, political, and religious aspirations. As the Danish anthropologist Miriam Zeitzen has shown in her research on Malay elite polygamy in Kuala Lumpur in the 90s, these religio-political developments in a rapidly-modernizing Malaysia made polygyny an increasingly appealing lifestyle choice among whom she refers to as the “new Malay urban elite.” 

According to Zeitzen, men of this emerging class embraced polygyny to emulate a practice that was traditionally a hallmark of Malay aristocracy, thereby enhancing their own social prestige and elite status in society. Polygyny also became an act of conspicuous consumption that displayed — particularly to their equally wealthy male peers — their moneyed status and economic prowess to attract and maintain multiple wives. In a climate of heightened religiosity during the period of Islamic revivalism, Muslim men found renewed interest in polygyny as a Prophetic practice (sunnah nabi), which visibly enhanced their Islamic piety. Polygyny thus served as a ticket of admission of sorts into the ranks of the Malay urban elite, for whom a second (or third, or fourth…) wife was an indispensable accoutrement to the high society life they aspired for. 

Polygyny may carry the promise of various pleasures and privileges in matrimony for women.

While polygyny continues to favor the wealthy elite, there is also a growing number of men from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who are contracting second (and more rarely, third) marriages without the financial capacity to fulfill the economic demands of polygyny, particularly with the ease of eloping to Thailand. These include small-scale businessmen and self-employed entrepreneurs; low-to mid-ranked salaried employees in the government sector such as teachers and religious bureaucrats; and middle-class white-collared professionals who earn a lot to support one family comfortably, but not nearly enough for two. 

These men of more modest means seek polygyny not for the symbolic privileges sought by the urban elite above, but as a remedial solution for legitimizing love, romantic attraction, and a desire for intimacy with a woman they have fallen in love with (jatuh cinta) outside of marriage. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the polygynous marriages I have studied began as romantic affairs that, for the husband, were extramarital. 

Malay men’s post-marital love, in turn, is reciprocated by women — largely divorced or never-married — who similarly seek companionship, sexual intimacy, and access to motherhood within the permissible boundaries of Malay culture (adat), Islam, and the state. In a sexually conservative society like Malaysia where marriage is the sole legitimate means for accessing sexual intimacy, polygyny presents a permissible alternative to a life of celibacy, divorce, or widowhood, particularly among women still within — but perhaps reaching the extremity — of their reproductive years. Marriage and motherhood are two defining features of Malay womanhood, but these, in polygyny, come at a heavy price.

The Long Road Ahead

Polygyny may carry the promise of various pleasures and privileges in matrimony for women. These, however, are unattainable without first securing the material comforts of marriage, which prove to be even more elusive in an economically unstable urban environment. 

Although, as we have seen, Islam and Malay adat designate the husband-father as the primary provider in the polygynous marriage, this pandemic brings a fresh bout of financial difficulties and uncertainties that would make urban polygyny almost unfeasible for men to sustain single-handedly in this economic climate. Malaysia, like many countries across the world, is bracing itself for a serious economic recession ahead. Unemployment levels just hit a record low at 3.9 percent in April 2020, and are projected to reach as low as 13 percent in the coming year — an extremely worrying forecast for men, who make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia’s labor force

Many women in polygyny would thus be compelled to supplement the role of provider for men, whose job security — and, therefore, the capacity to maintain multiple families — would be compromised during and after this pandemic. Malay women have, for generations, enjoyed the right to work and earn an independent income; they should also, according to Islam and Malay adat, enjoy the right to retain or dispense their income as they wish. But in dire times such as these, women may have little choice but to channel their earnings towards rent and mortgage payments, groceries, and children’s school fees — expenses that are incumbent on the polygynous husband-father to bear. 

Vegetable sellers at the Siti Khadijah Central Market in the city of Kota Bharu, Kelantan. Women in this region are known for their entrepreneurial spirit, running small & medium enterprises (SMEs) that help sustain their families. Courtesy of the author.

The pandemic may not only compel Malay wives to take on a heavier economic role in the marriage than usual for survival; the husband’s absence from family life in normal times, extended even further by the current lockdown, also means that the burden of childcare continues to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. 

The silo nature of Malay polygyny adds to this burden. Malay co-wives and their children do not live under the same roof, and seldom share household and childcare duties characteristic of traditional African or Mormon polygyny. Most in fact maintain a strained relationship that ranges from a distant, mutual acknowledgment, to, more commonly, antipathy exacerbated by inter-family competition for the husband’s time, income, and affections. 

This lack of collaboration and cooperation between co-wives would present significant logistical challenges for women to rejoin the gradually reopening economy, especially if schools and childcare centers remain closed indefinitely. In times like these, women are propelled to draw on the support of their kinship network (i.e. mothers, sisters, and relatives) for childcare more than ever. Polygynous husbands’ spasmodic paternal involvement and Malay cultural expectations that categorize housework and childcare as a “woman’s job” explain why, despite being more educated and professionally qualified than men, women’s participation in the labor market is still worryingly low.  

The Syariah Courts do provide several legal provisions for wives in polygyny to protect their emotional and economic security in marriage. Women may, for example, apply for a court order for the man to provide maintenance; in the event of divorce, the newly-established Special Court for Marriage, Child Custody, and Maintenance (Mahkamah Khas Perkahwinan, Hadanah dan Nafkah) promises more stringent measures against slacking husbands by granting legal authority for the court to freeze or seize the husband’s assets if they fail to provide alimony. However, the prolonged closure of all courts during this pandemic has led to a suspension of the justice system that will significantly delay the registration of polygynous marriages, and, subsequently, women’s access to their legal rights in marriage. 

This pandemic will undoubtedly increase economic pressures that may consequently exacerbate existing emotional tensions that already strain many Malay polygynous marriages. Men’s threatened livelihood, combined with the logistical and emotional difficulties of meeting the needs of multiple households, may likely drive their polygyny towards the divorce of either wife. But the wives in polygynous marriages I have come to know intimately in my research have also shown a resourcefulness and resilience that allows them to transcend various conjugal constraints, and these will prepare them for the long road ahead. ♦

Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif is a social anthropologist and a Visiting Fellow in the Program on Law & Society in the Muslim World, Harvard Law School, where she is researching marriage and intimacy in Muslim-majority Southeast Asia. She earned her doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge in 2018, and is currently working on her first monograph based on her doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled Halal Intimacy: Love, Marriage & Polygyny in Contemporary Malaysia

Recommended Citation

Razif, Nurul Huda Mohd. “Polygamy in a Time of Pandemic: Hard Times Ahead.” Canopy Forum, June 30, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/06/30/polygamy-in-a-time-of-pandemic-hard-times-ahead/