July 5, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1330

Female Iraqi MP's Proposal To Enshrine Polygamy In Law Causes Public Uproar In The Country

July 5, 2017 | By D. Hazan*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1330

On March 12, 2017, just four days after International Women's Day, Jamila Al-Obaidi, a Sunni member of the Iraqi Parliament from the National Coalition, convened a press conference calling for the promotion of polygamy and the rescinding of restrictions imposed on it by the law in Iraq.[1] Polygamy, she said, is permissible according to the Quran, which allows a man to marry up to four wives,[2] and added that the goal of such a move would be "halting the phenomenon of the increase in older widows, and divorced and single women in Iraqi society, who currently number more than four million." According to Al-Obaidi, women should be honest with themselves and encourage men to take more than one wife, and denounce the culture of monogamy, which she said comes "at the expense of her sisters" and violates a woman's honor. She even proposed that laws be passed setting "financial incentives to encourage the men and help them to marry more than one woman, and to double these incentives for those who marry a widow or a divorcee."[3]

MP Al-Obaidi's proposal caused a great uproar in parliament, with one female MP lashing out at her and even throwing a shoe at her and slapping her.[4] Other female MPs vigorously opposed legal recognition of polygamy and claimed that instead of strengthening the status of women, Al-Obaidi is working to weaken and demean women and even to traffic in them. Women's rights activists threatened to file a lawsuit against her and warned that her proposal would lead to the disintegration of the family unit and that polygamy is bad for both women and men.

The proposal also led to much debate in the Iraqi press. Some Iraqi journalists mocked Al-Obaidi and the "compassion" she professes for men married to one woman, rather than working toward protecting women and defending their rights. There were also those who vindicated her and defended polygamy as a right of men enshrined in the Quran, which therefore should not be questioned. They even accused her opponents and the Muslim countries that have passed secular laws restricting polygamy of destroying the family unit and pushing women into prostitution, licentiousness, and degeneracy. Some even claimed that married women's opposition to their husband's taking another wife is tainted with egoism and a lack of consideration for widows and divorcees. Other journalists took a neutral stance, alleging that there are both advantages and disadvantages to polygamy, with one writer focusing his criticism on the coarseness of the discussion in the Iraqi parliament on Al-Obaidi's proposal and calling the reactions to it and the violence directed at Al-Obaidi "disgusting."

In this context, it should be noted that in recent years there has been a significant increase in polygamy in Iraq, probably due to the ongoing war there and the resulting increase in the number of single women and widows. For example, on March 25, 2015, the London newspaper Al-Arabi Al-Jadid reported that a great increase polygamy had been noted in Iraq's personal status courts, most of it illegal and without the authorization of a qadi. According to the paper, Iraqi personal status judge Majabal Hussein stressed in this context that Islam allows polygamy not so that the man can brag about it and not for reasons such as love, but that "polygamy is permitted for an exalted purpose which is to worship Allah by providing for widows, divorcees, and older single women by marrying them, providing for them financially, and protecting them."[5]

Jamila Al-Obaidi (image:

This report reviews the reactions in the Iraqi media to MP Al-Obaidi's proposal about polygamy.

The Opponents: This Is Demeaning To Women, A Threat To The Family Unit And To Society

As stated, the proposal put forward by Member of Parliament Al-Obaidi aroused great anger among other female Members of Parliament, among women's rights activists, and among Iraqi journalists, as presented below.

Female MPs And Women's Rights Activists: The Proposal Demeans Women And Encourages Trafficking In Women

Female MPs expressed opposition to statements by Al-Obaidi, stressing that in fact there is a need to work rather toward strengthening the status of women. MP Rizan Al-Sheikh, a member of the Committee for the Welfare of the Child, said: "This proposal demeans the Iraqi woman and encourages others to traffic in her [women]. This is similar to what the Islamic State organization did when [its members] sold Yazidi women in the slave market. Therefore, we will stand firm and unhesitating against any legislation that might harm Iraqi women, so as to defend their honor." She asked: "Have all the problems of Iraq already been solved, so that nothing is left to us other than to enact laws that permit polygamy? Does Iraq's economic situation allow one man to raise two families? This type of legislation does not help Iraqis to resolve the chaos within which they live, but rather deepens the problems."[6]

MP Ibtisam Al-Hilali also came out against Al-Obaidi's proposal, alleging that a law encouraging men to marry more than one woman "is likely to bring about the disintegration of the family, not to mention that giving a sum of money to a man in return for his marrying a second wife is a kind of trafficking in her [sic]."[7]

Maysoon Al-Damluji, MP from the National Coalition, came out against the idea of polygamy and demanded that "parliament, the government, and all those connected to the issue work toward improving the reality of a woman's life, grant her training, and empower her economically and morally... so that she will be able to make independent decisions about her personal life, and not [have them dictated] by laws that violate the principles of the modern civil state."[8]

Iraqi social activists also came out against Al-Obaidi's proposal, accusing her of demeaning women, and even threatened to file a lawsuit against her because of this. Civil rights activist Reya Al-Khafaji said that she intends to file a lawsuit against Al-Obaidi for "bitter degradation of the Iraqi woman, and specifically widows and divorcees" and added: "These women are not up for purchase or sale." Raqiya Ali, a jurist and women's rights activist, said that she does not believe that "these types of laws can create solutions; on the contrary, they are liable to contribute to a great extent to the dissolution of the family unit. Also, under no circumstances would the women agree to such a law.[9]

Iraqi Journalists Oppose Al-Obaidi's Proposal

Dr. Rabi'ah Al-Obaidi, an Iraqi civil activist who lives in the U.S., published an article in the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman in which she attacked Jamila Al-Obaidi. She wrote: "This MP aspires to collect signatures from the Iraqi MPs to support legal recognition of polygamy... the same polygamy from which men are restricted by law despite the increase in the phenomenon of widows, older single women, and divorcees, whose numbers have exceeded four million." She argued that according to research conducted in Saudi Arabia at King Faisal Hospital and the Jeddah Research Center, polygamous marriages harm both men and women – for example: polygamous men are more than four times as likely to have heart problems as are other men; the polygamous man is under emotional, economic, and physical pressure; and polygamy has a negative impact on the woman's emotional state and self-image.[10]

Iraqi Journalist: What A Shame That The MP Is Encouraging Polygamy Rather Than Defending Women And Their Rights

Iraqi journalist Ali Hussein, who writes in the Al-Madah daily, also came out against Al-Obaidi's demand to legally recognize polygamy, and presented her as someone who harms women rather than looking out for their interests. He wrote: "I have no personal opinion with respect to MP Madam [Jamila Al-Obaidi] and I admit that this is possibly the first time I have ever heard her name... However, I believe that she embodies the most terrible contradiction in relation to the issue of woman, in that she congratulates the women of Iraq on the occasion of International Women's Day, but [at the same time] she demands the passage of a law that will allow men to marry more than one woman... it seems that swept up in her call for polygamy [Al-Obaidi] has forgotten that she was elected by the District of Mosul, that her job is to care for the displaced, to help the residents of her district, and not to transform herself in the blink of an eye into a matchmaker searching for a second wife for [a married man] father of children.

"It's pathetic that the MP comes out in defense of polygamy and calls for financial rewards for those who demonstrate compassion and take a second wife, instead of working to defend women, to protect their rights, to provide them with employment opportunities equal to those of men, and to take care of widows and orphans... It makes me very sad that the world exhibits sympathy for the tragedy of the women of Mosul, for the immense humanitarian problem, while the MP [Al-Obaidi] believes that the problem is [the absence of] a law that encourages polygamy."[11]

The Supporters: Polygamy Is Anchored In Islam, Strengthens The Islamic Nation, And Is A Man's Natural Right

On the other hand, there were Iraqi journalists and sheikhs who expressed support for Al-Obaidi's proposal to permit polygamy, claiming that it is an issue anchored in Islam and is a man's natural right.

Shi'ite Sheikh: A Man Who Takes Additional Wives Is Realizing One of His Legitimate Rights

In an article on the website of the Iraqi news agency Burathanews, Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Abd Al-Hafez Al-Baghdadi stressed that people often speak for or against polygamy in the Quran, although this is "an unassailable topic in the Quran" that one cannot appeal, or even express an opinion about, for that would be "heresy against Allah." He called MP Al-Obaidi's proposal "humane" and wondered why it had sparked such an uproar, "as if it were something unusual in the Islamic arena." According to him, polygamy was and is customary among nations of the world; Islam did not invent it and does not obligate its followers to practice it,  but rather it permits it and has set rules and boundaries for it.

He enumerated arguments in support of polygamy, among them: "When the man cannot make do with one woman to satisfy his desires, or if his wife is barren, or if he aspires to increase the population of the [Islamic] nation... so that a man will not rid himself of his wife so that he can marry another... and if the number of women is greater than the number of men because of war." Al-Baghdadi presented additional arguments justifying polygamy: after a woman gives birth to children, she necessarily changes, and she neglects herself and her husband; so as not to cause a man to commit a sin; to provide for divorced women and widows and to reduce their numbers, especially among war widows. He mused: " Isn't the [married] women's keeping their husbands [for themselves alone] a kind of selfishness?" He also accused married women who oppose their husbands' taking an additional wife of ignoring the plight of widows and divorcees and not empathizing with them. According to him, "when a man marries a second or third wife, it is inappropriate for the woman to make a fuss; rather, she should be patient... because the husband has done nothing forbidden, but rather has realized one of his legitimate rights."

Al-Baghdadi stresses that the Quran sets only four conditions for polygamy: that the wives be treated fairly and equally; that the man be financially able to provide for his wives; that he not have more than four wives simultaneously, and that he must be permitted by the Quran to have those wives. According to him, all the conditions added later by the clerics, such as permission from a qadi, or because the situation warrants it, are not included in the Quran, and they make things difficult for Muslims; they were, he said, apparently appended as the result of the "vile defeatism" experienced by Muslims when they encountered the West.[12]

Iraqi Writer: Polygamy Was Acceptable To Other Religions As Well; The Secular Law That Forbids Polygamy Encourages Licentiousness

Iraqi writer Imad Al-Taee published a similar article in the Al-Zaman daily arguing that those who wish to denigrate Islam and to cast aspersions on it enumerate topics in Islam to support their views, including, for example: the death penalty for ridda, (abandoning Islam); the jizya poll tax levied on non-Muslims under Muslim rule; and polygamy. According to him, "the issue of polygamy takes the lion's share [of attention] in this context, because they [use it to] accuse Islam of being a religion that denigrates the value and status of women." In defense of Islam, Al-Taee argues that the forefathers Abraham and Jacob, and King Solomon, each had several wives; that neither the Jews nor the Christians prohibited polygamy, and that up until the 20th century it was common for Protestants to have more than one wife. He added: "Following the rise of the secular regimes, men enacted man-made laws, the majority of which deprive them of their natural rights, one of which is the right to be polygamous." According to Al-Taee, "this secular law caused the destruction of the family unit... and pushed many women into prostitution, licentiousness, and degeneracy."

Al-Taee also stressed that Islam did not leave this subject open to misinterpretation but set down rules and conditions that allow a Muslim man to marry up to four women, but no more, as long as he treats them justly and is able to provide for them. Over and above the permission granted by Islam, Al-Taee listed two additional points in favor of polygamy. One of these is so as to increase the population of the Islamic nation and in that way to strengthen it, for, he says, an increase in the number of workers strengthens the economy. He rejected the claims that an increase in population may strain the country's resources that may then not be sufficient for all, and said that in this case one must trust in Allah who permits polygamy.

He wrote: "Take China for example, the country with the largest population in the world, and it is considered one of the strongest and most highly-regarded countries in the world... and one of the greatest industrialized nations." The second reason he gave is that "statistical data shows that the number of women is greater than the number of men, so that if every man marries only one woman there will be women who will remain single, which will cause damage both to them and to society." Additionally, he wrote, "If they [the single women] have no husband to take care of their interests, provide them with a home, provide for their material needs, and protect their modesty, and if they don't have his children in whom they may delight," they are likely to deteriorate morally. He concluded: "We have seen then that Islam treats the woman justly and elevates her status and her value in society and among the nations, and the Muslim woman has become a source of emulation. This is in contrast to the secular laws that have transformed women into worthless sexual merchandise."[13]

Sheikh Abd Al-Hafez Al-Baghdadi compared polygamy to the situation among the Christians: "The Christians don't allow marriage to two wives, but they openly permit prostitution anywhere that a couple desires it." He added: "Islamic marriages are a legal and financial contract between families, not a lifelong obligation blessed by Allah between a man and a woman. The Islamic marriage contract is not [signed] in a mosque and traditionally is called 'aqd nikah' or 'contract for sexual relations,' while some Arab countries have changed the name to 'marriage contract' because they argue that the word 'nikah' used in the Koran and the hadith hurt [people's] feelings."

He also noted: "The reaction [on our part] to the slandering of [Islam because of polygamy] is [seeing the] shameful reality in the West, where the majority of women have become cheap merchandise and spend their remaining days in the company of a dog or a cat.[14]

A Neutral Stance: Polygamy Gives Hope To Unmarried Women But Also Causes Problems In The Family

Other writers took a neutral stance toward polygamy:

Iraqi Writer: There Are Disadvantages To Polygamy – But Also Advantages

In an article for the secular Iraqi website, writer Ali Al-Zaghini enumerated arguments for and against polygamy in Iraq, and concluded: "Marriages to a second wife has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, they grant hope to a woman who may be in need of a man, who was on the verge of despair or collapse due to the circumstances of her life. On the other hand, they may cause arguments and disagreements within the family, if there is no convincing reason for these marriages or acknowledgement of the [first] wife within them. At the same time, we must remember that in the Quran Allah permits a man to marry more than one woman, so long as he treats them equally."[15]

Iraqi Female Journalist: Polygamy Is Not Forbidden, But A Woman's Economic Future Must Be Assured

In an article in the Al-Zaman daily, journalist Nidal Al-'Azawi did not rule out MP Al-Obaidi's basic position with respect to polygamy, but said that certain conditions had to be met. About Al-Obaidi's demand for polygamy to be made into law and for incentivizing men to take a second wife who is a widow or a divorcee, she wrote: "All this is well and good, and intended to serve the best interests of the woman and to help her to provide for the family... but if we examine this issue... on the one hand, we will discover that there are young people who are unable to marry for economic reasons, chief among them the absence of employment to help them to manage married life and because they don't have [even] a small house in which to raise a family, nor the ability to pay for a wedding."

Even marriage, she said, will not solve the issue since "many of the widows are young, and most of the divorcees are also young and divorced just months after they married, due to poverty." She added: "In any case, the law should protect the woman and her children, if she has children from the man she was married to, since not all the men are angels and one of them might harm her or her children one day." Therefore, she demanded that for polygamous marriages, the law would set three conditions: "The men will commit in writing to pay the woman an extremely large amount of money if he harms her or her children, which will serve as a deterrent, because the woman might lodge a complaint against him [and he will be obligated to pay the amount]; the woman will be housed in a small unit registered in her name and the names of her children, 50% to each, so that these children will never be homeless; and the woman should receive a monthly stipend to provide for her children and [to ensure that] they complete all their studies."[16]

Iraqi Writer and Intellectual: The Vulgarity Of The Reactions To Al-Obaidi's Proposal Is Disgusting

Iraqi writer and intellectual Ali Al-Kash wrote that he didn't take a stand with respect to the issue of polygamy, but that he defended Al-Obaidi's right to present her position and expressed sorrow at the coarseness of the discussion on the matter in parliament: "It may be that there were those who criticized [Al-Obaidi's] proposal because it did not come at the appropriate time, but this is just a proposal that may be accepted or rejected, through quiet debate... Others claimed that Islam permits marrying a second wife and that there is no need for legislation in this matter, although they didn't express their opinion about the fact that the constitution of Iraq and of the other Islamic countries restrict Islamic legislation with law and rules known to all...

"The MP took a humane position in light of the current difficult situation of the Iraqi woman, and was not referring [just] to the man's satisfaction in bed – a point which justifies her proposal while not implying agreement with it, or opposition to it [on my part]. [At the same time,]  the number of widows tops one million, and in light of statements from the judicial authorities, it may be estimated that the number of divorcees is similar."

Al-Kash also spoke out against the incident in which a female MP slapped Al-Obaidi and threw a shoe at her, referring to it as "a scene remarkably similar to a barroom brawl, or a fight in a whorehouse, or, at best, to what takes place in the jungle." He added: "The vulgarity encountered by the MP who put forward the proposal is disgusting."[17]

*D. Hazan is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Personal Status Law No. 188 of Iraq (1959) determines in this case: "Article 3.4: Marrying more than one woman is not allowed except with the authorization of the qadi (judge). Granting this authorization is dependent on the fulfillment of the following two conditions: a- The husband should have the financial capacity to provide for more than one wife. b- There is a legitimate interest." It continues: "3.5: If justice between wives is feared, polygamy may not be allowed. The issue would then be left to the judge’s determination. 3.6: Each person who concludes a marriage contract with more than one wife, contrary to the stipulations of paragraphs 4 and 5, shall be sentenced to no more than one year of imprisonment or charged with a fine not exceeding 100 Dinars or both. 3.7 Exception from the provisions of paragraphs 4 and 5 of this article: marriage to more than one woman is permissible when the prospective wife is a widow." 

[2] Quran 4:3: "Marry the women you like the best, two, or three, or four."

[3] To view the video of MP Al-Obaidi speaking in parliament on this matter, see, posted March 13, 2017.

[4] To view a video of the throwing of the shoe and the violence, see, March 13, 2017.

[5] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 25, 2015

[6], March 14, 2017.

[7], March 13, 2017.

[8], March 13, 2017.

[9], March 14, 2017.

[10], March 25, 2017. It appears that the writer based her piece on an article about polygamy published on on July 31, 2015, according to which the Saudi study was conducted in April 2015. It states that the article included results from Western studies that also attributed advantages to polygamy for men and women, but the writer chose to relate to the Saudi study that mentioned only disadvantages.

[11],  March 12, 2017.

[12], April 8, 2017.

[13] Al-Zaman (Iraq), March 21, 2017.

[14], April 8, 2017.

[15], March 19, 2017.

[16], March 21, 2017.

[17], March 28, 2017.

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