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British TV airs documentary on polygamy in Muslim community

A new Channel 4 documentary aired in the UK, called “Men with many wives”

Nabila Pathan

Published: Updated:

Whilst the practice of polygamy is illegal in the UK, estimates reveal that as many as 20,000 such marriages do currently exist amongst the British Muslim community. This week, a new Channel 4 documentary aired in the UK, called “Men with many wives,” provided a rare glimpse into some of these polygamous experiences.

Directed by Masood Khan, the documentary has been praised for being “unusually clear-eyed... that took all its subjects seriously and at face value.” For those featured in the documentary, the motivations of embarking on a polygamous marriage are as varied as “no reason other than this [polygamy] is allowed” for Omar a physicist; to “I’d rather be in a polygamous marriage, with someone who knows how to be a husband,” explains Nabilah Philips, who gave up her place at Cambridge university as a PhD student in order to became a co-wife.

Whilst, most critics of polygamy view the practice as patriarchal and disadvantageous to women both economically and socially, there is a consistent emphasis by some of the families featured in the documentary to highlight the importance of treating all the wives fairly and justly. Hasan, a 32 year old polygamist from South London, uses every opportunity on camera to assert how he attempts to navigate his wives sensitivities. At his low-key wedding to his third wife, he explains why he didn't invite his other two wives: “Even though they’re accepting of polygamy, you don’t want to rub their faces in it.”

However, the responsibility of looking after large families is clearly overwhelming for others like Mohammed el-Ghannay, a father of 11 from Sheffield, who depends on state benefits to support his three families from his three wives. As for the question of whether he as the husband fulfils the requirement of polygamy to treat his wives fairly, the audience is left to draw conclusions when he has to borrow money in order to visit his wife and three children in Morocco who have, according to the documentary, not seen Mohammad for the last nine months.

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, Mizan Raja, who has been running a UK based Muslim matrimonial service, MuslimMarriageEvents.com, for over 13 years and who is featured in the documentary as a marriage broker for some of the participants in the documentary, explains: “as a service provider we don't offer polygamy but people arrange it after meeting up with someone at our events or database. They make their own choice and consent as they are mature adults.”

Mizan explains that the client profile increasingly enquiring about polygamy are those that fall under the remit of the highly educated such as lawyers, doctors and those who work unsociable hours. He explains that “more women are demanding such a service because of modern lifestyles.” As for the advice he offers people wishing to enter into a polygamous marriage, he said:“First, don't do it as it is too much stress mentally. They have to be spiritually strong.”

The documentary also features a Malaysian Muslim family who offer candid insights into the sexual benefits associated with a polygamous arrangement.. The same family gained widespread national news coverage in 2011, when they introduced the Obedient Wives' Club to the UK, a Malaysian organisation with branches in Australia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Singapore and Indonesia. They were criticised for preaching that wives should fulfil the sexual desires of their husbands.

Although being married to more than one person at a time is deemed illegal under UK law and elicits a seven year jail term for those guilty of the offence, some British Muslims in polygamous marriages overcome this block by undertaking the Nikka ceremony which is not deemed a legally binding marriage in British courts, according to the documentary. However, advocates against the practice of polygamy within the Muslim community have expressed concerns about the vulnerable economic position placed on the women and inability for them to seek recourse to public funds, especially if children are involved.

The relationships portrayed in the documentary are complex and nuanced. Whilst it depicts polygamous relationships between consenting adults, there are moments of hardship and struggle which trump some of the stated ideals of the participants in the documentary. According to one Television critic writing in The Guardian: “It was primarily a story of people struggling to keep relationships – lots of relationships – operative and afloat. More than anything else, it made one think about parallel hypocrisies in Western marriage traditions.”