16 Days of Activism - One Man, Too Many Wives
Polygamy is not something we see an awful lot of in Britain. The vast majority of the population marries just one person at a time. When we hear of people marrying more than once without getting divorced, its newsworthy because it’s rare … and illegal! Unfortunately, despite the law, the idea and practise of polygamy is not unheard of in some communities in the UK. Muslims who follow Sharia Law are among those where polygamy is most commonly practised.
To be more precise polygamy is the overall term for multiple marriages. Polygyny, is when one man marries several women, and polyandry when one woman marries several men. In most cases, here and around the world, the cultural norm is polygyny and that is what this blog is about. However, for ease of understanding, the term polygamy will be used in place of polygyny.
The Problem in Britain
Polygamy is prevalent among Hindu communities in India, Muslim communities in sub-Saharan African countries and Malaysia, and among the Christian Mormon community in the United States.
But what is shocking is that it’s estimated that there are some 20,000 polygamous marriages in Britain and indications are that numbers are rising.
Under Sharia Law, polygamous marriages are permitted, but it dictates that each wife must be equal. Typically, each wife would have their own separate household, but there must be no difference between the quality of the housing, the domestic provisions or the income of the families, to ensure no wife is ‘above’ or ‘beneath’ another. In such cases, it means the husband has to have sufficient means to be able to keep more than one wife.
Nothing is Equal
However, in the Middle Eastern Women & Society Organisation's (MEWSo) experience this is rarely the reality. Over the years we have come across so many wives in polygamous marriages suffering emotional distress, domestic abuse and destitution that, together with Greenwich University, we have created a programme specifically designed to help women in polygamous relationships (more about that later). And, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of these women did not choose to share their husband.
In Sharia Law, many couples go through a religious marriage ceremony called Nikah. Within the Muslim religion these marriages are legal but in British law they are not. So couples also have to go through a civil ceremony if their marriage is be legally recognised in the UK.
But, so many brides go through Nikah in good faith believing they will be the only wife, only to be deliberately misled by their husband because they don’t speak English or understand British laws. Or women are pushed into it because they are getting older and the family insists they marry. Wives are too ashamed to accept divorce so instead accept the husband getting married again. Or women go ahead with a Nikah wedding believing a civil ceremony will follow shortly, only for it to never take place.
Whatever the reasons, there are thousands of women trapped in polygamous marriages they never asked for or wanted, who are emotionally, economically and legally vulnerable.
These second or more wives have none of the rights of a legally married woman when it comes to divorce or bereavement. She is not eligible to claim housing benefits or council tax relief, and has to apply for welfare for herself and her children as a single person. If she comes from abroad her husband’s citizenship will not help her gain settlement rights and she is at risk of being deported.
Most worryingly, research shows that polygamous relationships are often a site for domestic and/or sexual abuse and violence, and if she has no settlement rights, fear of being deported will stop her from reporting the abuse.
Despite the religious acceptance of polygamy, communities in Britain where it is practised often see it as a taboo. Many of these trapped women experience severe shame and find it difficult to talk about. It results in the numbers taking part in any research remaining low. However, what research there is suggests women do not fair well in polygamous relationships.
- Out of 31 women surveyed, 27 of them were not supported financially by their husbands, and of those 27, 21 of them had to rely on welfare benefits to survive.
- A qualitative study in the UK found 85% of women who discovered their husband had another wife subsequently experienced depression. And, further findings showed that the children in these relationships were negatively affected, often feeling disconnected from their school peers. 
Here are some of the issues found to weigh upon women and children in polygamous relationships.
- Have to share their husband
- Are financially restricted or neglected
- Suffer the judgment of others within the community
- Can find little information to help them as the subject is taboo in the UK
- Have no bereavement benefit if her husband dies
- Have no rights should they ‘divorce’. Sharia Law limits her divorce rights
- Lose their inheritance, also under Sharia Law
- Can lose her children as Social Services is unclear when it comes to child custody
- And wives from abroad have little or no rights to settle in the UK.
- Can suffer mental health issues at the unfair treatment of them and their mother
- Will have limited contact with their father
- Can suffer emotional neglect from their father
- Can suffer more harshly going through any separation process
- Can experience financial neglect
- Can be severely embarrassed by, or unable to explain, their family dynamic
- Get little help from school, the GP and other agencies ignorant of the family’s situation, and
- Will naturally be negatively affected by any abuse and violence within the family.
MEWSo’s Family Matters
Started as a pilot project in 2017, in partnership with Greenwich University, the Family Matters programme is a series of workshops over a six-month period designed to engage and support women trapped in polygamous marriages.
Recently re-started in 2021, and sponsored by the Lottery Community Fund, the workshops use creative tools that encourage the women to take part in ways that help them gradually share their experiences.
Using various storytelling techniques, the women are inspired to tell their stories, often speaking in the third person before they can admit that the story they relate is theirs. We use visual body-mapping tools to help the women visualise the hurt they’ve experienced but find difficult to express, and an activity called a ‘word café’, which is principally a word association process.
The workshops help build trust and communication, which in turn makes these women more likely to consider counselling and befriending support, group sessions and other creative workshops that can help them emotionally and practically turn their lives around.
As well as the programme, MEWSo provides follow-up sessions based on the feedback we gather from the workshops, and our advice services, which help specifically with welfare and domestic abuse issues, are available to them throughout and beyond the Family Matters programme.
In order to keep the programme as relevant as possible, we brainstorm possible models and techniques of working with the women we aim to help; we have a team of women from minority backgrounds who are part of the decision making process for this service, and we evaluate our findings and techniques to continuously improve.
For instance, any woman who becomes particularly emotional or distressed during our workshops, we can offer them one-to-one attention in a separate space, while the rest of the group continues to work their way through the programme.
As part of our bid to offer a bespoke community service, we also:
- Raise awareness and inform clients of their legal rights
- Invite female role models to speak about their own experiences of standing up for their rights
- Give advice and support on day-to-day issues, encouraging the women to heal and become more independent
- Offer advice and guidance on education, job searching and learning new skills
- Provide emotional support through counselling, befriending and networking, and
- Help protect those women dealing with domestic abuse using our solicitors to issue non-molestation orders.
Building Wider Support
MEWSo recognises the importance of working together with a host of other sister charities and relevant organisations, to better ensure the protection and safety of some of the most hard to reach women in our communities. And we are starting to share our expertise by giving presentations and talks about our Family Matters workshops.
Through these workshops, and in addition to our regular services, we aim to improve the emotional wellbeing and mental health of women in polygamous relationships, improve their financial independence and help them rebuild their lives and the lives of their children.
If you would like to know more about MEWSo’s Family Matters programme, or to get involved, please email: [email protected]. Or visit our website: www.mewso.org/stop-polygamy.
Halaleh Taheri is the Founder and Executive Director of MEWSo. She was born in Iran and was a refugee in Iraq during Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, and displaced again during the first Gulf War in 1992. She found asylum in Sweden during before moving to Britain in 2005. She has a degree in Pedagogy (the science of teaching), is a trained Social Worker and is fluent in Farsi, Kurdish, Swedish and English. Her own experience of being a refugee, losing many members of her family to armed conflict and witnessing routine violence against women, meant she decided early on in life to dedicate her time to helping vulnerable, displaced women rebuild their lives.
 The Men with Many Wives, Channel4, Sept 2014
 Rehman, Yasmine 2016: ‘Refusing to recognise polygamy in the West: a solution or a soundbite?’ Open Democracy, 11 July 2016
 Jaan, Habiba 2014: Equal and Free? 50 Muslim Women’s Experiences of Marriage in Britain Today (Newbury: Aurat)
 Rehman, Yasmin 2013: ‘“It begin with sister”: Polygyny and Muslims in Britain’ Moving in the Shadows: violence in the lives of minority women and children. (Farnham: Ashgate) pp.185-201