Between Two Wives, the first ever book about polygamy to be published in the UAE, is a unique, surprising and highly provocative read about one Emirati man’s experience. But is three still a crowd?
“We all dream big and work hard to make our dreams come true… But at the end of the day there is destiny. The same destiny that shaped my life… A life that remains a big mystery to many who never had it. Even though they might have heard about it, they would never be able to comprehend its unnatural facet,” writes Hussain Ali Lootah in the opening chapter of his semi-autobiographical novel, Between Two Wives.
The topic of polygamy has long befuddled most other cultures, but for the first time in the UAE, this private world is being exposed in the public space.
The controversial nature of Hussain Ali Lootah’s book is fast becoming a cause célèbre across the Gulf. The author, who penned the novel as a way to “share my experience with family, friends and people who have been curious about my life for a long time,” remains resolute in his belief that a polygamous lifestyle was destined for him.
But while there are women who are very happy in polygamous relationships, and those who simply accept this way of life as ‘their lot’, others, like Dr Rana Raddawi, associate professor in the department of English at the American University of Sharjah, have witnessed first-hand some of the devastating consequences of polygamy. Through her investigations Dr Rana has learnt that the majority of the wives involved tend to “hate each other and despise the man.”
Dr Rana, who surveyed over 100 female Arabs, is set to publish her research on the emotional impact polygamy has on the wives involved. For the most part, the answers lie in a murky pool of jealousy, neglect and rancour.
For her, it is not simply a case of polygamy being a practice that should remain in a previous century, but one that she refutes outright. “I think you would call me an extremist as I reject this way of life in any phase or time because of the definition of marriage that I hold. Marriage to me is an emotional commitment between two people. It is based on love, trust and loyalty. To me, polygamy and adultery are two sides of the same coin.”
Polygamy has been practiced in different cultures around the world throughout history and is still legal in most Muslim countries, with the exception of Tunisia and Turkey. But despite it being legal, it is not carried out extensively outside the GCC.
According to the Quran (in Surat Al Nisa’a; verse 3), a Muslim man is permitted to have up to four wives: “Mary women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or that which your right hand possesses. That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice”.
The reasons for a second or third wife vary from humanitarian reasons including taking on a deceased brother’s wife as a second spouse in order to take care of her and her children, or those with infertile wives who want to have children, to more unsavoury practices such as fast marriages for pleasure to men showing off their wealth. Then there’s the desire to produce more sons to carry on the family name or those husbands that are unhappy with their first wives but can’t divorce them due to family pressure. A number of polygamists marry significantly younger women to help them feel ‘young’ again. Divorced or widowed women tend to be second or third wives, since most single men wouldn’t consider them for marriage.
In Dr Rana’s eyes – and she admits she’s a fanatic – the only tolerable circumstance is when it is the woman’s choice and it is one that benefits her. “Let’s not forget that the Muslim society is a conservative one,” she levels. “Women in general cannot engage in a romantic relationship without being married. Therefore, for single women who have certain needs but who cannot find a bachelor, polygamy could be the solution. Actually, some scholars use this argument to defend and promote polygamy. I do not see the problem here as long as the first wife is informed and approves of the marriage and that the second marriage is made public. Yet, from what I have observed, perhaps one out of a million would grant her consent and that is usually down to her economic and social dependence.”
But Hussain Ali Lootah, whose first wife (Aliyaa in the book) is Emirati and whose second (Maria) is Brazilian had none of these reasons. For him, it was simply written in the stars with his fate decided “long before I put pen to paper.”
He is aware that Between Two Wives is being met with mixed reviews (interestingly, Dr Rana enjoyed reading his “brave and candid account”, praising the author for “reflecting on a very serious social phenomenon that has been hitting the Gulf region for many years without, unfortunately, being discussed by intellectuals or scholars”). But he insists that, rather than guilt, he feels a responsibility “to fulfil the duties of a husband”, acknowledging that this is “different and more onerous” when there is more than one wife involved. His relationship with his wives, he tells me, was, and still is, “open, honest and transparent.” He adds: “I believe it’s my duty to treat each wife equally in the most humanly possible way – both financially and emotionally. It feels like I have two halves: one for one wife and the other for the other wife.”
But is polygamy with equality attainable? Rana argues that it is an unequivocal ‘no.’ While the Quran states that there are conditions that need to be met, including treating each wife with justice and fairness, she is quick to point out that favouritism cannot be excluded.
“The Quran itself,” says Dr Rana, “addresses men in Surah An-Nisa’; verse 129: ‘You never will be able to do justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire.’”
“The source of unhappiness,” she continues, “starts from day one when they know about the second wife.”
Rana remains resolute and has detailed evidence to support her beliefs. Her data includes direct quotes from women such as Safia* a 40-year-old housewife from Saudi Arabia who had been married for 20 years when she admitted: “I slapped him in the face when I knew he got married to a second wife. He could not do anything because of how ashamed he was.”
Then there’s 25-year-old Sarah*, an accountant from the UAE who stated: “I filed for divorce the next day. I could not bear the idea of being in a polygamous relationship. I am so angry at him.”
Aysha*, 39, from Jordan, had been married for 15 years and was compelled to turn to the police. “I reported him, as since he got married again he stopped supporting me and the kids. I feel so ashamed.”
Words like ‘mortification’, ‘betrayal’, ‘sadness’, ‘disappointment’, ‘insecurity’, ‘jealousy’, ‘low self-esteem’, ‘hatred’, ‘threat’, ‘neglect’ and ‘depression’ are just a few to rear their pitiful heads, while most wish that their husbands no longer existed.
Hussain, however, is adamant that both his wives are happy with the status quo, with Maria described in the novel as someone who loves her husband so much she is willing to stay hidden, to sleep on a mattress and to endure the sharing of her beloved man with another woman simply for the sake of keeping him and staying close to him. Hussain also maintains that both women are completely supportive of his book. “They understand that it is about my experience. I don’t believe I expose them. It is not a secret that I am married to two wives and I have been in this relationship for a long time. I have not shared anything they do not know.”
This was not always the case though, with Dr Rana initially feeling “resentful towards the main character Yusuf” given that he proposed to Maria without telling her that he was already married. “He detached her from her roots and her people, brought her to a foreign land to tell her afterwards that he had another wife and children. Not only that, he also kept her in the dark for a while. That’s what made my anger peak… Especially since it goes against religion, which dictates that the first and second wives should be aware of the existence of each other and any marriage in Islam should be announced in public. Some scholars go further to say that the man should receive the consent of the first wife as is the case in Morocco and Algeria.”
But, she continues: “As the story develops Yusuf does unveil the humane and ethical side of his personality when he starts feeling the suffering of his two wives. This suffering was not only a heavy burden on him but has also transformed into a feeling of self-betrayal and regret. This part of self-consciousness and social awareness and empathy of the main character is the most beautiful in the book in my opinion,” says Dr Rana, quoting her favourite paragraph: “But his feeling of betrayal was far more brutal and horrible than an inflated ego. He was betraying Aliyaa, who lived for him and through him as well as Maria, who believed in him despite being in complete darkness of his identity. He was betraying himself as well despite having tried hard to maintain the constants and values that were instilled in him early on in his life.’’
Hussain rejects the notion that a polygamous marriage is akin to leading a duplicitous existence. “This is completely different to living a double life, which would be more fitting to describe someone who is in an extra-marital relationship and hiding the truth from his wife.”
That said, the wives’ character arcs are not explored to their full potential and their voices are conspicuously absent from the book. Hussain argues that this is his personal undertaking, with the semi-fictional book never intended to be about the experience of his wives.
While polygamy is a source of fascination for those unfamiliar with it, every relationship has its strengths and weaknesses, and this is just as true in polygamous marriages.
Dr Rana’s stance may be as steadfast as the Al Hajar Mountains, but her outlook is a balanced one. Applauding the author for shedding light on society’s hypocrisy when preaching something in the name of religion, she highlights that “he managed to pinpoint the main social flaws of this time which are taboos in Gulf society. It’s a brave step and a milestone in Gulf literature. For that he deserves special merit.”
That the reader is left wanting more is both a clever artistic ploy and a means of protecting his loved ones, most significantly his children. “I realise that people may want more,” concedes Hussain. “More details and a story that would make headlines. However, I do not wish to explore the dynamics in fuller detail in particular about my wives and children. There may be a sequel that explores this, but at this stage readers will be left to their own imaginations.”
Which is, all things considered, the most considerate route to take. Because ultimately it is the children who stand to be most affected by the experience. “Of course it has negative effects on children,” says Dr Rana. “Mr Lootah shows it clearly in his book. I am a mother and I know that when I interact with my children, I consciously or unconsciously convey my emotions, whether positive or negative. When I am sad, the kids become sad.”
Still, most women are willing to do all it takes to afford the children some sort of stability. “He destroyed my life, but I have to accept reality so that he can help me to raise my kids,” says Fatima*, 30, an English teacher from Syria, who has been in a polygamous relationship for six years.
It can be a tough reality to swallow. But, as Dr Rana notes, the author does weave in a beautiful reflection that helps to reconcile both the readers’ thoughts on the subject matter as well as the men and women involved in polygamous relationships.
“As time passed by, he [Yusuf] became certain that one’s comfort is in one’s mind, heart and feelings, and not only in physical rest. Happiness, stability and peace of mind were the weights to balance the scales.”
Between Two Wives is published by Motivate and is available in leading bookstores and at booksarabia.com for Dhs120.
Images: Getty, supplied