CBC Fifth Estate Doc on Polygamy Among Muslim Canadians: A Personal ReflectionWritten by Chelby Daigle
A recent CBC Fifth Estate episode about polygamy among Muslim Canadians and its accompanying article has sparked online debate among Muslims.
You can watch the documentary online below.
Most of the discussion centres around how best to address the abuses of Muslim family law raised.
But there are also questions being raised about how CBC handled this topic in the context of rising Islamophobia in Canada and deciding to release this episode with the second anniversary of the Quebec Mosque Shooting on January 29th fast approaching.
It's not surprising that Islamophobic groups who were already up in arms over the fact that Jawed Anwar registered the name "Islamic Party of Ontario" with Elections Ontario are now demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak out against polygamy, framing the issue of polygamy as part of the dreaded "Sharia Law Takeover" of Canada. And this is all a great way to distract us from seriously discussing hatred against Muslims in this country.
Frankly, I think a documentary discussing the reality of polygamy among Muslim Canadians and exploring all its implications on our lives is long overdue.
I just wish it had been handled more responsibly.
The whole going undercover with Imam Aly Hindy was just ridiculously sensationalist. He’s been on the record as someone who conducts polygamous marriages for over a decade. Check out this interview by Toronto Star reporter Noor Javed from 2008 where Imam Hindy discusses officiating over polygamous marriages. I would have preferred to see CBC just do a straightforward interview with Imam Hindy about performing polygamous marriages; he’s never been all that camera shy. And then the documentary would have had more time to explore other far more pressing issues related to this topic. I still think Noor Javed’s article, despite being 10 years old, is a better exploration of the issue and the negative impact it's having on some Muslim women's lives.
Nazim Baksh’s article accompanying the CBC documentary is also strange as it frames the issue of polygamy in the context of #MeToo. But #MeToo is about issues of sexual violence, exploitation and harassment from men in positions of authority and influence. More and more Muslims are speaking out about sexual abuse and exploitation, sometimes in the form of secret polygamous marriages, from religious and community leaders-For example, Muslim Canadian Najwa Zebian’s #MeToo post that went viral and got her sued!-that’s all part of Muslim Canadians'#MeToo moment.
But the type of polygamy explored in this CBC documentary doesn’t fall into the #MeToo category. It is about the rights of women and children in Muslim Family Law, and as the 10 year old article by Noor Javed demonstrates, we’ve been publicly discussing this issue for some time now.
I've been working with researchers to explore the polygamy situation for a series on MuslimLink.ca to be released in the Spring inshallah (hopefully). It will explore many of the issues raised in this documentary but also some that the documentary left out, with potentially serious consequences. Because of my concern about what this CBC documentary left out I am going to give my own reflection about the documentary and the article that accompanies it based on my own research and lived experience with loved ones impacted by polygamy.
I should also share that when I first converted to Islam, back when I was younger and skinnier, I was frequently approached by men to be a second wife so what I discuss is also informed by those experiences.
The Mental Health Impact of Polygamy on First Wives
I would love to just watch a documentary about Zaib trying to figure out whether or not to stay married to her husband of over 20 years after he just calls her up to tell her he's taken a second wife. There is so much to unpack here, including the challenges facing families where the husband has to leave Canada in order to find work, which is Zaib's husband's situation. The reality is that often men who live abroad are taking second wives so they have the Canadian first wife then the other wife in the US or in Dubai, or in Saudi Arabia or in Oman or in Singapore, etc.
We learn that Zaib had to leave work because of the depression and anxiety her husband's decision has caused. We also see her learn that she's not alone and that so many in her social network were going through the same thing, but were suffering in silence.
Muslim communities need to create space to discuss the mental health of middle aged Muslim women who are experiencing divorce initiated by husbands who want to marry younger wives or second marriages initiated by husbands who want to marry younger wives. This is far from a uniquely Muslim problem-it’s a very Canadian problem. But it is not something we allow many women in our communities to speak about openly.
The reality is that what Zaib is going through is also what women, Muslim and non-Muslim, go through when their husbands cheat on them and/or decide to divorce them. During my decades long experience struggling with mental illness, I have been in and out of psychiatric wards and out-patient programs where I have met many women from all backgrounds who had complete mental breakdowns because of their husband's infidelity and decision to divorce them.
I think it is important to point out that this is a devastating experience shared by many women from all faith backgrounds. We need to find more ways to support women as they grapple with the psychological, financial, spiritual, and legal impact of their husbands' choice to commit adultery, divorce them, or take a second wife.
The Mental Health Impact of Polygamy on Children
I would have loved to hear more from Zaib's daughter Aisha who we see recording her mother's journey. She is clearly being her mother's rock during this difficult time. One of the issues we seem to seldom talk about during lectures about men's RIGHT to polygamy is the impact on their children who they have responsibilities to beyond just financial obligations. From the little we see from the documentary, her father's choice has negatively impacted Aisha's life and I would have wanted to hear more about her relationship with her father and with the Muslim community members who are supporting his choice. How has this impacted her own identity as a Muslim in Canada?
I personally have loved ones who grew up in Canada and only found out in their teens and twenties that they had half siblings living in the same city, the product of their father's other marriages. Again, I also have non-Muslim friends who got the same news from fathers who had had affairs so be it polygamy or adultery, the common denominator is men not valuing the rights of their children to know one another and build bonds of kinship.
The Spiritual Impact of Polygamy on First Wives
The CBC article that accompanies the documentary includes interviews with two Muslim women who share that their experience with husbands who had taken secret second wives impacted their faith in Islam and their relationship with the Muslim community. I wish this issue had been explored more in depth because it is the issue that distinguishes polygamy in Muslim communities from just plain old fashioned Canadian adultery. Learning that your husband is no longer sexually attracted to you or in love with you or that you are just not enough for him is a devastating experience for a woman particularly as she is aging, but being told that you are a bad Muslim for not just accepting that your husband has a second wife, is really adding salt to the wound. A woman has a right to be heartbroken without being made to feel guilty for being heartbroken.
When many of my friends went to imams in Ottawa because their husbands are cheating on them-a common problem in our community that has been documented in the work of University of Windsor researcher Julie Macfarlane on Muslim Family Law in North America-they were advised to just let him have a second wife and a few of the imams added helpful tips about losing weight and getting plastic surgery so they would be more attractive for their husbands. Since when did Muslims become so chill about adultery?
The reality is that the negative impact of your husband taking a second wife in many ways is pretty much the same as if your husband cheated on you or decided to divorce you. The difference is that in polygamous situations, you have a husband, possibly religious leaders, and men and women within your family and community trying to shame you into accepting his choice because if you don't you are a bad Muslim woman. This needs to stop.
A woman has a right to feel heartbroken and to demand justice if she is being treated unfairly because it is pretty clear in the Quran that even if your husband takes other wives he has to treat you fairly. Where is the community's compassion towards these women's struggles? And where is our sense of justice about upholding their rights?
So Muslim Men should just commit adultery in order to be Good Law-Abiding Canadians?
I wish the documentary would have actually tried to address the points Imam Aly Hindy was raising when he was confronted by CBC reporter Habiba Nosheen about the fact that he conducts polygamous marriages-which as I stated earlier isn’t a secret at all!
The issue isn't just that police and lawmakers are not enforcing the law against polygamy. It's that the law against polygamy seems kind of "out of date" in a society where adultery is legal and polyamory (having multiple romantic partners for both men and women) is openly practiced. I mean Canada is in the process of legalizing cannabis so is it really that far-fetched if someone like Imam Aly Hindy thinks the laws around polygamy might change?
I live in Ottawa, the city now internationally renowned for having the most subscribers to AshleyMadison.com, a website that helps men and women find other men and women to commit adultery with; their motto is "Life is short, Have an Affair". It's a booming business and they release fascinating annual reports about how much money Canadian men are spending on their mistresses! SeekingArrangement.com is another website that matches "sugar daddies", wealthy men, with "sugar babies" young women willing to offer sex and companionship in exchange for "gifts" like paying their tuition and accommodation. That site recently shared a report about how the University of Ottawa has some of the most "sugar babies" subscribed to the website in Canada. So, I basically live in the adultery capital of Canada...which also just so happens to be the Nation's Capital.
So, I have to ask, what is the real solution here? Is this documentary trying to say Muslim men committing adultery are better Canadians than those trying to marry a second wife religiously? That by just committing adultery you are being more respectful of Canadian law than if you try to get a second wife in accordance with Islamic Law? That you can have a secret mistress and not go to jail in Canada but if you have a second wife you should have the police called on you to take you to jail? That being an AshleyMadison.com or SeekingArrangement.com Subscriber shows you are more "integrated" into Western society and a patriotic Canadian than subscribing to SecondWife.com?
Does that really make any sense?
Who are the Second Wives?-All middle aged White Converts to Islam? I think not.
I found it strange how the documentary focused on an interview with a middle aged White convert to Islam as the example of a woman looking to be someone's second wife. It's true, many middle aged women, particularly converts, are open to being second wives and I've certainly seen many of these women sponsoring Muslim men to come as their husbands to Canada knowing that they have wives and children back in their homelands.
But these are not the women I often see actively approached to be second wives in cities like Ottawa and Toronto. Muslim men are usually looking for young women. But what I see as particularly disturbing is how often the women pursued have little family support. I don't think this is a coincidence.
Notice how in the documentary Imam Aly Hindy offers to provide male witnesses? Shouldn’t the witnesses be people who actually know both parties? I’m sure there are all sorts of legal loopholes but if you have members of both families available that’s who should show up to witness the marriage, right?. I have had friends go through similar situations where the imam conducting the nikah told them that they did not need to have any family members present. I have friends who had imams convince them NOT to involve their families. Why? Because the reality is that what we are often seeing is Muslim men being enabled by religious leaders to not fulfill their obligations to both their first AND second wives.
One of the Ottawa imams who conducted my friend's nikah without her family present got paid $400 and was a registered marriage officer with the Government of Ontario at the time. The nikah was performed at a Tim Horton's. Needless to say, within a few months it became clear that this husband had no interest in financially supporting my friend who he demanded take social assistance instead. The whole reason why she, a desperate single mother, had agreed to become a second wife in the first place was because this man was offering her financial support so she wouldn't have to go on social assistance! This is the typical situation of second wives I'm seeing and hearing about in Canada. They are financially vulnerable physically attractive younger woman, often a single mother, a refugee, a recent immigrant, or a convert, who might not have immediate family in the country or who can be easily isolated from her immediate family and manipulated by both the man who wants to marry her and the religious leader who is getting paid by this man to conduct the marriage. This is predatory behaviour.
And yes I know that not all Muslim men looking for second wives are doing this, but we need to talk about the ones who are doing this and the religious leaders who are helping them do this and find ways to help the sisters whose vulnerability is being exploited.
The Abuse of Second Wives
This is why the whole law enforcement angle of this CBC documentary makes me super uncomfortable. Because based on our research which involved actually interviewing police officers, it's not just the man who's going to go to jail if charges of polygamy are laid, it is also the second wife if she knew he was married. So you want to arrest some desperate Muslim single moms and some refugees and immigrants-who could end up deported as a result? Is that the solution you are proposing to this problem? Seriously?
And I know two second wives who were kept in deplorably abusive situations by their husbands because they were told by these men that if they went to the police for help they would be arrested because they were in polygamous marriages. Alhamdulillah (Thank God), they were able to find help to get free, but they never went to the police because of this fear.
The problem is polygamy is not a grounds for divorce in most Islamic schools of jurisprudence so women feel trapped
Both the documentary and the article present divorce as an easy and straight forward option for Muslim women in Canada. It's not. One of the real problems I see with what is happening with polygamy in Muslim communities in Canada is that women who do not want to accept that their husband has a second wife are being left in lslamic legal limbo if their marriages are not registered with the Canadian courts. A man taking another wife is not grounds for divorce in Muslim Family Law unless you specified in your original marriage contract that he can't take a second wife. Also, depending on which Islamic school of jurisprudence you follow, it can be very hard for a woman to initiate a divorce. This means that women are just TRAPPED.
This is a serious problem in general, whether there is polygamy or not and I continue to be dumbfounded by how little is being done in our communities to resolve this. I mean I know stories told to me by both the women and men involved of women’s male family members or even imams having to corner men in parking lots after Friday prayer in order to try to pressure them to divorce the wives they have virtually abandoned but who they often for abusive reasons don't want to divorce.
There is also the other issue of men who don't want to divorce their wives who are recognized under Canadian law because they don't want to pay them alimony. I still remember the drama caused by the proposal to have Muslim Family Law courts in Ontario which was in part driven by Muslim men who didn't like how much money they had to pay in alimony to wives in Canadian courts when compared to the relatively small amount of support they would be obligated to pay under Muslim Family Law. This is still a problem that needs to be resolved and could easily be resolved if more Muslim Canadians were making pre-nuptial agreements-you only want to pay your wife three months of spousal support?-make that clear in a pre-nup so everyone is on the same page!
Where do we go from here?
I have no idea.
But I don’t see sending people to jail because they didn’t just commit regular adultery like a REAL Canadian as the solution.
All I see as the take away from this documentary is that it is more just for men to divorce their wives before marrying another woman.
But is that something all Muslim women in Canada would actually want or will some rather stay with their husbands, even if they have another wife, because that is more appealing to them than being divorced?
Either way, we need to start organizing educational sessions and safe spaces within the community on the following subjects:
Life After Divorce:
Education and Support for divorced Muslim women (I saw sessions like this organized by ICNA and the Being Me Conference, we need more!)
The Second Wives Club:
We can’t have women living in polygamous marriages have to hide in the shadows of our community, that’s how abuse happens. We need to create spaces to support them and find ways to ensure that their rights are being fulfilled and they are not being manipulated and taken advantage of.
So You Want to Get a Second Wife…Why?:
A lot of Muslim men and women are having problems in their marriages and the man, and sometimes even the first wife, thinks getting a second wife would be the solution. But maybe some marriage counselling and sex therapy (Ya, I said it) would be a better solution in order to address what’s not working in the first marriage. Otherwise, those problems just might mess up the second marriage too. So as a community can we try to intervene more positively when men express interest in having a second wife to get at the bottom of what the real issue with their first marriage is?
What to ask when you want to get married:
One positive development I see is that polygamy is coming up more often in pre-marital discussions between young Muslim Canadians. Although the discussion usually goes something like this:
“If you don’t accept that I’m getting a second wife, I’m not going to marry you.”
I would love to hear readers’ thoughts on the documentary and what we can do constructively to support our sisters and their children who are struggling with these issues.
Muslim and Canadian Family Laws: A Comparative Primer by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women
MarriageSuccess.ca : MarriageSuccess.ca is a landmark educational film series. For the first time Islamic scholars are presented together with professional therapists and dramatic artists in 10 exceptional documentaries about getting married and staying married.
Intimacy by Registered Muslim Canadian Social Worker Ismail Shaikh: We are constantly reminded of dwelling in Sakinah (tranquility) and practicing Mawaddah (love) and Rahmah (mercy) with our spouses. Yet we all know of close and extended family and friends whose marriages and families are wrought with issues. These include but are not limited to commitment, communication, and conflict management problems. In fact, often such issues are the seeds of the eventual breakdown of the Muslim family. Ismail Shaikh, Mental Health Counsellor knows first-hand about such problems. After the divorce of his parents, he chose to study Clinical Social Work in order to help people care for themselves and their relationships better. In I-Intimacy, Ismail draws on his personal and professional narratives to show us how to plant the seeds of Sakinah, Mawaddah, and Rahmah. I-Intimacy is a a revolutionary guide containing a mix of life-changing reflections and practical tools. Whether single, divorced, or married, I-Intimacy will help you drastically boost the emotional intimacy in your marriage and family life.
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