THE WHEELS OF social reform in India grind slowly and often painfully, but they do grind. Practices that belong to societies of the past remain as if etched in stone, and then suddenly they become history. This happened with Triple Talaq, where Muslim husbands could summarily divorce their wives. It was recognised as repugnant to women’s rights but Indian society seemed fine with it. Then the Supreme Court in 2017 came out with a judgment, and that was followed by a law in Parliament ending it. Two years prior, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a non-governmental organisation, had come out with the results of a survey where they asked Muslim women what they thought about Triple Talaq. More than 90 per cent had wanted it gone. At the time, BMMA itself was unable to foresee when the practice would end. But within a couple of years, it had happened. Now, another anachronistic institution that victimises Muslim women might be next.
On January 20, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) said that the Supreme Court would be creating a fresh bench of five judges to hear a public interest litigation (PIL) on making polygamy illegal. Two judges of an earlier such constituted bench had retired. News agency PTI reported: “‘There are very important matters which are pending before a five-judge bench. We will constitute one and bear this matter in mind,’ the CJI said.” The case has been going through the motions of the judiciary for some years now but eventually, perhaps sooner than later, the hearings will begin. Once that happens, it is hard to see how it won’t go the Triple Talaq way. The toll polygamy takes on women is not very well-known. One can understand that it is unjust but the specifics of the impact rarely filter into public consciousness.
Recently, BMMA came out with the findings of a survey that they did, this time on polygamy. Once again, they asked those who were affected by it and whose voices are never taken into account—the women themselves. As many as 289 women who were in polygamous marriages were sent extensive questionnaires to find out what exactly it meant to be in such a relationship. These were some of the findings as published in their report and it paints a stark picture:
Over 50 per cent of women suffer from mental trauma, such as depression, self-blaming, suicidal tendencies;
Only 23 per cent of husbands informed their wives about their second marriage;
72 per cent of women learnt about husbands’ second marriage through family or external sources like neighbours or friends;
35 per cent of husbands gave the reason that they fell in love with someone else;
11 per cent (husbands) were not happy with their wives’ bodies;
11 per cent (husbands) gave the reason of no children;
45 per cent (husbands) threatened their first wife with divorce if she resented the second marriage;
42 per cent (husbands) do not live with their first wives anymore;
47 per cent (husbands) do not provide monthly maintenance (to first wives);
41 per cent (wives) moved to their parent’s house;
84 per cent of women feel that polygamy should be made illegal ;
73 per cent of women feel that husbands indulging in polygamy should be punished.
Polygamy exists in all religions in India. An analysis of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data by the International Institute of Population Studies (IIPS) in a research paper found that it was 1.9 per cent among Muslims, 1.3 per cent among Hindus, and 1.6 per cent among other religious groups. The paper noted its prevalence: “Religion was one of the most important factors in polygyny. The latest data (NFHS-V) shows that polygynous marriage was the higher among Muslims (1.9%), followed by others (1.6%), and the least among Hindus (1.3%). Polygyny (one man marrying multiple women) among Hindus was more prevalent in Telangana, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu, and less prevalent in Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, and Punjab according to NFHS-V. Similarly, polygynous marriage among Muslims was high in Odisha, Assam, and West Bengal and low in Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, and Haryana. In communities other than Hindu and Muslim, polygynous marriages were more prevalent in Odisha and Telangana as per NFHS-V.”
But being legal only among Muslims makes the women in the community especially vulnerable. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, a co-founder of BMMA, says that this was because the Muslim family laws were never codified unlike in other religions. “We’ve been involved in the demand for codified Muslim family law for the last 15 years. The Hindu family law is already codified. That includes the Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. The Christian family law is codified. The Parsi family law is codified. Muslim family law did not get codified. And the religious leadership after Independence ensured that nobody touches that part of our lives. The political regimes also did not look at the whole issue from a woman’s perspective.”
BMMA’s survey is significant because it, perhaps for the first time, highlights what polygamy does to the mental health of women who endure it. Over 50 per cent of them said they were depressed most of the time. There was also insomnia, frequent aches and pains, feelings of helplessness and shame, and a tendency for self-harm. BMMA also collected case studies and the report stated: “One victim says she wanted to die then, go away from the house, and punish herself. She also wanted to commit suicide. Bahut bure bure khayal aaye us waqt. Another woman shares that when she heard about his [husband’s] second marriage, she lost consciousness. Constant worry has affected her mental and physical health. She is always worried. Especially when women don’t get the maintenance they worry more, especially for their children and their future.”
This is made worse because polygamy is a phenomenon that attaches itself to the lower crust. The IIPS research paper stated that such marriages were “found to be higher among poor, uneducated, rural and older women.” Niaz says that mental health issues get amplified for women from these backgrounds. “A poor woman doesn’t have a place to go if she wants to leave her husband. He marries again, becomes negligent, doesn’t pay the maintenance, and doesn’t look after the children. She’s already not educated, she’s already not earning, how is she going to manage? So, for her, additionally, issues of survival become very crucial.”
The system is also stacked against the wife. In the survey, only 29 per cent approached a Qazi court for redress after the husband married again and 42 per cent were told to adjust because it was allowed in the Sharia law. But that is not necessarily a deterrent to ending the practice. One of the points that BMMA makes is that a number of Muslim-majority countries like Turkey and Tunisia have banned polygamy, and others like Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, and Malaysia have tightened laws that give women greater power to walk out of such marriages.
Polygamy also has a correlation to domestic violence. Last September, IIPS came out with a research paper titled ‘Association of Polygyny with Spousal Violence in India’. This paper, too, used data from NFHS to compare the experience of wives in monogamous and polygamous marriages. The latter suffered significantly greater abuse. The article said: “In India, 20.6% of women were victims of at least one type of physical violence by their husbands. Among them, 33.7% were from polygynous unions, and 20.4% were from non-polygynous unions. It was observed that all the acts of physical violence were more than double [except for slapping] in polygynous unions than in non-polygynous unions. Regarding different types of violence, slapping was the most reported act of physical violence, followed by being pushed, shaken, or having something thrown at them.” The same difference in prevalence was true for sexual violence. It said: “Overall, 5.4% women faced sexual violence for the past one year—12.6% and 5.3% of them belonging to polygynous and non-polygynous unions, respectively. Being physically forced to have sexual intercourse was the most prevalent sexual violence (9.9% in polygynous and 4.2% in non-polygynous) followed by threats and forced to perform sexual acts that women did not want to.”
These numbers quoted by the paper have to do with polygamous marriages from all religions, including Muslims. But everyone, except Muslim women, is on a sounder legal footing. The rest have the option of filing a police complaint against husbands for not just domestic violence but also polygamy. Niaz says, “If a Hindu or a Christian woman has legal protection to reach out to the Indian Penal Code if her husband has married again, why should that legal facility or provision or privilege be not made applicable to Muslims?”