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28 September 2009
Here come the brides: Polygamy club woos Malaysia
RAWANG, Malaysia – When she was practicing law, Kartini Maarof once went beyond the call of duty for her divorce client.
She arranged for Rohaya Mohamad, a mother of seven, to be married again _ to Kartini's own husband.
The spouse they have shared for a decade is 43-year-old Ikramullah Ashaari, who has four wives and 17 children. His 72-year-old father has 38 offspring from five marriages, without ever having flouted Islam's prescribed limit of four wives at a time.
Polygamy is legal for Muslims in Malaysia, though not widespread. The Ashaari clan believes it should be. Last month it launched a "Polygamy Club" that claims the noble aim of helping single mothers, reformed prostitutes and women who feel they are past the marrying age.
"We want to change the way people perceive polygamy, so that it will be seen as something beautiful instead of something disgusting," said Hatijah Aam, the founder of the club. She is the fourth wife of Ikramullah's father, Ashaari Muhammad.
Polygamy may seem out of place in an Asian democracy proud of its skyscrapers, high-tech skills and go-getter economy. But it retains a foothold in this Muslim-majority country of 27 million where piety is deeply embedded and Muslims can be arrested for drinking alcohol or consorting with the opposite sex unless a couple is married.
The government also polices religious practice. Ashaari, the family patriarch, used to head an Islamic sect that was banned in 1994 as heretical because it projected Ashaari as an absolver of sinners.
Most of the Polygamy Club members belonged to the sect, and there's nothing illegal about how they live now, so long as they're Muslims. For the one-third of the population that isn't Muslim, polygamy is unlawful.
The practice used to be more common but has dwindled to an estimated 2 percent of all Muslim marriages as women have become freer and careers have opened up for them.
The polygamists point out that the Prophet Muhammad is thought to have married about a dozen women in his lifetime, including widows in need of protection.
"Some people treat polygamy as a laughing matter because they do not fully comprehend it," says Ikramullah, a jovial businessman and son of his father's first wife. "But a community that practices it would know that it is not bizarre. In fact, you would be teased if you were a man with only one wife."
The club claims to number 300 husbands and 700 wives. It hopes to cultivate examples of happy households to counter women's rights activists who say some spouses and children suffer in polygamous marriages. Club members say polygamy deters adultery and would improve the marriage prospects of ex-prostitutes if more men were available to marry them.
But Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the Muslim female minister in charge of family policy, says polygamy "is not a culture that is encouraged in our society."
Sisters in Islam, an advocacy group campaigning against polygamy, says it isn't good for women.
"If people choose to be monogamous, there are enough men for every woman," it said in a statement to The Associated Press.
One opponent of polygamy is a 42-year-old business executive who asked to be identified only as Sharifah. She said she threatened to divorce her husband of nearly 15 years after he told her last year that he had fallen in love with a divorced mother of three, felt she needed help, and wanted to marry her.
"I felt like my fairy tale had ended," Sharifah said. "He was my soul mate. ... I couldn't believe it was happening. Then I started to scream at him."
She said some people told her that agreeing to a second wife would secure her place in heaven. But Sharifah, the breadwinner for her two children and jobless husband, refused to give in. The couple underwent marriage counseling and Sharifah's husband has promised not to marry the other woman.
"Women have to make a stand. We are getting more progressive. We know our rights," she said. "I will not enter into a polygamous marriage. I know I deserve better."
Kartini, 41, says polygamy has served her well; while she was busy arguing court cases, her husband's first wife would cook, clean and look after the children.
"The wives can complement each other," she said. "Of course, you miss your husband and there are natural feelings of competition and jealousy at first. But after a while, you try to become friends and you learn that you can share your problems with each other."
The club says most of its husbands keep each spouse in a home of her own unless the women agree to live under one roof. Many husbands rotate their days among households.
The tight-knit family is concentrated in Rawang, a town outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city. They gather for religious holidays and other festivities, such as a recent "Family Day" where they performed songs for each other and picnicked. They mingle easily in public, chatting and joking like any ordinary family.
The club is funded by the family's grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses. It plans to offer matchmaking, wedding planning and marriage counseling.
Hatijah, who became the patriarch's fourth wife in 1982, used to be skeptical of polygamy, and agreed to the marriage because she worried that at 27, she was getting too old to find a husband.
Now 54 and a mother of eight, she says: "What is wrong with sharing a husband? I've been doing so for nearly 30 years."