January 27, 2010
Special Dispatch No. 2773

Saudi Journalist: Why Is Polygamy Only for Men?

On December 11, 2009, Saudi journalist Nadine Al-Budair, a presenter on the Arabic-language American TV channel Al-Hurra, published a satirical article titled "Me and My Four Husbands" in the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm. In it, she wondered why, if a Muslim man could take up to four wives, a Muslim woman could not take four husbands so as to end the discrimination between men and women in this domain.[1]

The article drew fire from the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, while in Egypt there was a controversy between those who condemned Al-Budair and those who defended her, saying that her only intention was to draw attention to the discrimination against women in the Muslim world.

Following are excerpts from the article and from several of the reactions to it:   

Al-Budair: I Too Have the Right to Take Four Husbands

"[Please] allow me to marry four [husbands], or even five or nine, if possible. Let me emulate you [men], and choose them according to the wildest [whims] of my imagination. I will choose [husbands] of various shapes and sizes: one red-headed and one dark, one tall and one short. I will choose [husbands] of various sects, religions, nationalities, and ethnicities, and I promise you to [maintain] perfect harmony between them all. They will never quarrel, because [after all], they have a wife in common.

"Write me a civil law, or [re-]interpret some religious law [by] adding to it a new clause, [like they do in] those religious rulings [that are motivated] by a sudden impulse... [and are issued] without any prior warning. Just as you unjustifiably subject me to [various types of marriage] – [such as] mut'a, 'urf, misyaf, misyar and friend marriages[2] and other twisted [inventions] – allow me to marry four [men].

"The last time I demanded my right to be permitted several husbands... the women condemned it even before the men did... The basis for my demand was my insistence on monogamy and my determination to challenge the men by demanding the right to feel what they feel... when they take four wives. Don't the men glorify this [right of theirs], don't they anticipate it openly and in secret? Whenever [the issue] of the men's monopoly on [polygamy] comes up for debate, nobody can give me a convincing [reason] why I may not take four husbands [as well]...

"Many say that polygamy is the solution [to the problem] of men becoming bored and fed up with their wives, [and a way to deal] with [these] feelings of theirs. However, polygamy is a violation of the CEDAW Convention.[3] [Besides,] what about the feelings of the woman? Either permit polygamy to both [men and women], or else re-map [the custom of] marriage so as to solve this problem of boredom, which is the men's permanent excuse. Until [one of these things happens], I will continue to ask: What solution [do I have] if I become bored with my husband's body or [start to] feel that he is [like] a brother to me?"[4]

Saudi Cleric: Put Al-Budair on Trial; Saudi Liberal Columnists: Al-Budair Is Not Advocating Polyandry, Her Piece Was Satirical

Al-Budair's article was harshly condemned by members of the religious establishment, some of whom have called her "Satan's secretary" in the past. Sheikh 'Abdallah Al-Muni', member of the Saudi Senior Clerics Council, called to put her on trial for making statements in contradiction to the Koran and the Sunna. In an interview with the Saudi daily Sabq, Al-Muni' stated that Al-Budair was "a sinner who diverted [others] from the straight path," and that the Muslim nation completely opposed her views. Even the most moderate Muslim streams would not dare to voice such opinions, he said.[5]

Conversely, Saudi liberal poet and columnist Halima Al-Muzaffar said that Al-Budair's critics were shallow and narrow-minded. In an interview with the website www.islamonline.net, she pointed out that Al-Budair had merely made use of satire to illuminate a sensitive issue and to give the readers a sense of what a women feels when her husband takes another wife. Al-Muzaffar stressed that nobody actually meant to argue that polygamy should be allowed to women as well as to men.[6]

Saudi columnist 'Aziza Al-Muni' wrote in the Saudi daily 'Okaz that the uproar over Al-Budair's article was unjustified: "...Nadine is not the first woman to oppose polygamy, and is not the first who has called to limit or ban it. So why did [her article] evoke so many insulting and hysterical [comments], and even threats to file a [legal] complaint against her? Nadine [only] wrote that she wanted to be equal to a man, and therefore demanded to be allowed four husbands... I understand her purpose [in making this statement], and I assume that she did not [actually] mean to advocate polyandry, since she is against polygamy [in any form]. She only wanted to tell the men who practice polygamy that this is an ugly deed that leaves scars in the hearts of their wives..."[7]

Controversy over the Article in Egypt

Following the publication of the article, Egyptian MP Khaled Fuad, deputy chairman of the Sha'b party, filed a legal complaint against Al-Budair and against the daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm for "publishing filth."[8] The daily's editor, Majdi Al-Jallad, said in response that he would not stop publishing Al-Budair's articles, because she was an excellent writer who should not be condemned just because she chose to write in a satirical style. He too emphasized that she is not really calling to permit polyandry, because she knows her religion well. She is merely trying to draw attention to a social problem, namely that of men who use the custom of polygamy to humiliate women."[9]

The Egyptian clerics were divided in their views on the article. Those who condemned it said it was hostile to Islam and aimed at generating friction among the Egyptian public. They stated that Al-Budair had no right to attack the principles of the faith and must be stopped from doing so again. Those who defended her pointed out that she merely meant to protest against the harsh treatment that some women receive at the hands of their husbands.[10]

Al-Budair in Response to the Criticism: My Words Were Taken Out of Context

In response to the criticism, Al-Budair clarified that she was against polygamy of any kind, and that the purpose of her article had been to challenge the men: "...Ever since I published my article... the world has been boiling and raging around me. Rumors have spread that I want a collection of husbands, when [in fact] one is enough for me... [I wrote the article] for those people... who spout slogans without knowing what they mean, accuse columnists of heresy, burn books they haven't read, ban movies without watching [even] a part of them, and hate art, poetry, and music... I wrote it [precisely] for those people who did not understand what I wrote, except for one sentence that drove them crazy [with anger].

"You howl with rage just because [I wrote] a few words about equality? You go mad [with anger] just because I held up a mirror to your faces? I only asked to be in your shoes... Would you tolerate what I have had to tolerate [as a woman]? Would you tolerate it if I blamed you... for reaching the age of 60 and replaced your old body [with a new one], the way you replace parts in your car? Wouldn't you expect me to rise up against this, just as you rose up [against my article]? Why did I have to keep silent? Isn't it because you keep using religion as a pretext to practice polygamy in its most radical and crazy form?...

"You took my article out of context and divorced it from its intended meaning – [namely] a call for justice and for happier marriages. I raised these questions because I know, as you do, that most married [couples] in our [society] are not happy, and get bored after a single year [of marriage]. The man solves [this problem] through polygamy, but what is the wife to do? I believe in monogamy because it matches the circumstances and spirit of our times, [and is also mandated by] something that few have experienced – namely love. I believe [that men and women] should be equal in their rights and their duties... I think that [the custom of] polygamy should be reassessed, because even the most conservative Arab states have signed the CEDAW Convention..."[11]  

Nadine Al-Budair

Endnotes:


[1] Al-Budair made similar statements in an interview with the liberal website Elaph about a year ago, in which she argued that a woman needs four husbands more than a man needs four wives (www.elaph.com, January 28-29, 2008).

[2] These are different types of marriage permitted in Islam. Mut'a ("pleasure") marriage, permitted in Shi'ite Islam, is contracted for a limited period of time, and divorce is not needed to end it; 'urf ("custom") marriage is an arrangement that does not require an official contract and grants the woman no rights; misyaf marriage is practiced among rich men from the Gulf who go on summer vacation in Yemen and marry local girls for a particular period of time – a fortnight to two months – without the brides being aware of the time limitation; misyar is a marriage in which the woman relinquishes some of the rights that Islam grants her, such as the right to a home and to financial support from her husband, and, if he has other wives, the right to an equal share of his time and attention; and in a "friend" marriage, the girl remains at her family's home, and she and the man do not maintain a shared household but meet whenever and wherever they want. The last type of marriage is aimed primarily at meeting the needs of young Muslims in the West, who wish to have a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship as is customary in Western society, but with religious legitimacy.

On these types of marriage, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 291, "Pleasure Marriages in Sunni and Shi'ite Islam," August 31, 2006, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1784.htm#_edn3.

[3] The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979 and came into force in September 1981.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 11, 2009.

[5] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), December 15, 2009.

[6] www.islamonline.net, December 19, 2009.

[7] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 27, 2009.

[8] On January 4, 2010, the daily reported that Egypt's chief prosecutor had ordered to launch an investigation into Fuad's complaint.

[9] www.alarabiya.net, December 15, 2009.

[10] www.bbc.co.uk, December 19, 2009.

[11] Al-Rai (Kuwait), December 20, 2009.


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