Ignorant Goodwill


Afiya Shehrbano responds to Jemima Khan's piece on polygamy in Muslim communities, in South Asia Citizens Web:

In the post-9/11 period, conservatives in the west view Muslim women’s freedom exclusively through the act of unveiling, while ‘anti-imperialists’ fetishise it as a tool of passive revolution against racism, imperialism and Islamophobia. Neither wishes to discuss discrimination or material rights beyond wardrobe politics.

Then, there are some adventurous souls who overstretch their benevolent sympathy for the Muslim woman’s cause with a recklessness that only the very privileged can afford. Jemima Khan, enamoured by all that she has learnt about Muslim women’s exceptional rights during her time as Imran Khan’s wife, has recently ‘investigated’ British Muslim women’s partiality towards polygamous marriages as a socio-cultural refuge.

Mrs Khan herself renounced the traditional right of Muslim women to keep their maiden names after marriage but interestingly, chooses to retain her ex-husband’s identity even post-divorce. Social-celebrity affectation or not, that’s her personal choice. However, when she masquerades as a social scientist, then Mrs Khan may be well advised to read some of the prolific international scholarship by (Muslim) women on the historical intersections of polygamy with culture, religion and class and their assessment of its doubtful ‘benefits’.

Not to privilege science too much, even an anecdotal survey of some working class communities of Lahore, where Mrs Khan lived for several years, would have confirmed her thesis – albeit not with the same optimistic conclusions. Often, polygamous marriages have indeed provided some women a sanctuary…but not from poverty or abandonment, instead, from domestic violence. Once displaced, primary wives of polygamous arrangements sometimes (though not always) become lesser targets of spousal and in-law violence/discrimination. Technically, this could qualify polygamous arrangements as safer havens, I suppose.