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The Right of Woman in Polygyny by Martyr Mutahhari

The state of affairs which has always been mainly effective throughout history, due to which polygyny is rendered a woman’s right and the performance of a duty by man, is the comparative excess in the number of women fit to be married as compared to men in a similar situation.


The other form and the other kind of multiple partnerships is polygyny. Polygyny unlike polyandry and sexual communism is more usual and has a comparatively more accepted status. It does not exist only in savage tribes, but many civilized nations have also adopted it. Leaving aside the pre-Islamic Arabs, the custom existed also amongst the Jews, amongst the Iranians in the Sassanid period, and in some other nations.

Montesquieu wrote: “This law (equality in behavior towards all wives in polygyny) is also in force in the Maldivian Isles, where they are at liberty to marry three wives.” (The Spirit of Laws, vol.1, p.274)

He also wrote: “Some particular reasons induced Valentinian to permit polygamy in the (Roman) empire. That law, so improper for our climates, was abrogated by Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorious.” (ibid. p.271)

Islam and Polygyny:

Islam did not completely do away with polygamy, although it did do so as far as polyandry was concerned. Instead, it limited and restricted it. It abolished its non- restrictedness and confined it to a maximum of four wives. Islam, moreover, laid down conditions and restrictions, and did not allow everybody, to have several wives. We shall comment upon those limits and restrictions in the coming sections, and shall likewise throw light upon the reasons why Islam did not absolutely abolish polygyny.

It is strange that in the Middle-ages, among all the propaganda that was carried out against Islam, it was alleged that it was the Prophet of Islam who introduced polygyny into the world for the first time, and it was claimed that the foundation of Islam lay in polygyny. It was asserted that the cause of the speedy conversion to Islam among the various nations and peoples of the world is the permissibility of polygyny, and it was also given to be understood that the prime cause of the decline of the east was again polygyny.

In the first volume of his The story of Civilization Will Durant writes: Medieval theologians thought that Mohammed had invented polygamy, but it antedated Islam by some years, being the prevailing mode of marriage in the primitive world. Many causes conspired to make it general. In early society, because of hunting and war, the life of the male is more violent and dangerous, and the death rate of men is higher than that of women. The consequent excess of women compels a choice between polygamy and the barren celibacy of a minority of women; but such celibacy is intolerable to peoples who require a high birth rate to make up for a high death rate, and who therefore scorn the mateless and childless woman.

“Doubtless polygamy was well adapted to the marital needs of a primitive society in which women outnumbered men. It had a eugenic value superior to that of contemporary monogamy; for whereas in modern society the most able and prudent men may marry latest and have least children, under polygamy the most able men, presumably, secured the best mates and had most children. Hence polygamy has survived among practically all mature peoples, even among the majority of civilized mankind; only in our day has it begun to die in the Orient. Certain conditions, however, militated against it. The decrease in danger and violence, consequent upon a settled agricultural life, brought the sexes towards an approximate numerical equality; and under these circumstances open polygamy, even in primitive societies, became the privilege of the prosperous minority. The mass of the people practiced a monogamy tempered with adultery, while another minority of willing or regretful celibates, balanced the polygamy of the rich.”

In La Civilization des Arabes, Gustave Le Bon writes: There is no custom more despised and on which more erroneous ideas have been pronounced than polygamy. For the most serious of historians, polygamy has been the corner-stone of Islamism, the principle cause of the spread of the Koran, and at the same time of the decadence of the Orientals. These peculiar assertions are generally followed by indignant tirades on the unfortunate lot of the miserable women confined to the far reaches of the harem, guarded by ferocious eunuchs, and killed without pity when they no longer please their master.

“Such a picture is the opposite of the truth, and the reader who wishes to read this chapter putting aside his European prejudices will, I hope, be convinced that oriental polygamy is an excellent institution which greatly raises the moral standard of the peoples who practice it, gives much stability to the family and, as a final result, renders the woman infinitely more respected and more happy than in Europe.

“Before embarking on the proof of this, I will recall, firstly, that polygamy is completely independent from Islamism, for it existed before Mahomet among all the peoples of the East: the Jews, the Persians, the Arabs, etc. Those nations who adopted the Koran, therefore, had nothing to gain on this score by adopting polygamy. There has never been a religion, anyway, strong enough to transform traditions to the point of creating or preventing a similar institution. It is simply the consequence of the climate, of race and the various conditions of existence particular to the Orientals …………..

“In the West, where the climate and the temperament are however very much less demanding, monogamy is no longer to be found except in the law, and no one will contest, I think, that it is very rarely to be found in the behavior of people. I cannot see in what way the legal polygamy of the Orientals is inferior to the hypocritical polygamy of the Occidentals; rather, I can, on the contrary, very well see in what way it is superior. One can therefore perfectly well understand how the Orientals who have visited our great cities find our indignation towards them to be most strange and judge it most unfavorably.” (pp. 421-2)

Truly, Islam did not initiate polygyny but limited its number, and at the same time laid down stringent conditions for it. Amongst most of the peoples and the communities which accepted Islam, this practice was customary, and under the commandments of Islam they had to comply with the limits and the conditions ordained by Islam.

The Right of Woman in Polygyny

We have given an account of the decline of the custom of polyandry and of the general acceptance of the custom of polygyny. We elucidated various causes that have contributed to bringing about the custom of polygyny. Some of those causes, no doubt, have their root in the dominating and despotic mentality of the male sex, and some have their origin in the difference of the natural dispositions of woman and man in producing children, and in woman’s capability to produce the number of children desired. This may be regarded, in certain circumstances, a justification for man to have more than one wife. Nevertheless, the state of affairs which has always been mainly effective throughout history, due to which polygyny is rendered a woman’s right and the performance of a duty by man, is the comparative excess in the number of women fit to be married as compared to men in a similar situation.

For the sake of brevity, we shall abstain from going into the details and recounting the causes which may be considered sufficient justification for man in marrying several wives. We shall confine our discussion to one cause which, if it really exists, would make polygyny the right of the woman.

In establishing this point two premises ought to be made clear. One of them is that according to quite certain and indisputable statistics, the number of women fit to be married exceeds the number of men in the same situation. The other one is that if this state of affairs is a fact, it creates a right in favour of the left-out and the deprived women which can be claimed from men and married women, because of human rights.

Now as regards the first premise, fortunately relatively exact statistics on this subject are available in the world today. All the countries of the world, every few years, count their inhabitants and collect statistics relating to them. In these census reports, which, in advanced countries are prepared with minute precision, not only are the figures for the male and female sexes available, but the comparative number of each sex in different age-groups is noted down. For example, in these reports it is clearly mentioned that the number of the men in the twenty to twenty-four year age-group is this much, and the number of women in the twenty to twenty four year age-group is this much, and in like fashion the comparative numbers of all age-groups are mentioned. The United Nations Organization, in its annual population studies, continuously publishes these statistics, and till now there have probably been sixteen issues. The latest publication to date is for the year 1964, which was issued in 1965.

We should, of course, keep in mind one point from the very start: that, for our purposes, it is not sufficient to know what is the total number of members of the male sex in a particular country and what is the number of females in that country. What serves our purpose and what is necessary to know is the comparative proportion in the number of males and females of marriageable age. Mostly the proportion of the number of men and women of marriageable age is different from the proportion of the total number of men and women. This is for two reasons. One reason is that the time of puberty for girls is earlier than it is for the boys. It is for this reason that generally all over the world the legal marriageable age for the girls is lower than it is for boys, and almost invariably marriages between men and women all over the world take place while the man is, on the average, five years older than the woman.

The other cause which is more fundamental and more important is that in spite of the fact that births of girls are no more in number than births of boys, and occasionally in some countries births of boys exceed births of girls, deaths in the male sex occur sooner than deaths among females, and so, on reaching marriageable age, that harmony is disturbed and upset. Sometimes that difference is plainly evident and the number of women of marriageable age largely exceeds the number of men of marriageable age. So it is possible that the total number of males in a country may be the same as the females, or may be more, but in the category which has reached the legal age of marriage, the position may be the reverse.

This position is fully clear from the latest issue of the population statistics of the U.N.O. for the year 1964.

For example, according to the statistics detailed in that issue the total population of the Republic of Korea is 26,277,635 and out of them 13,145,289 are male and 13,132,346 are female. Thus in the total population the number of males is more than the number of females by 12,943. This proportion in children below one year of age, and in children from one year to four years, from five years to nine years, from twelve to fourteen years and from fifteen to nineteen years of age has been uniformly maintained.

Statistics show that in all these age-groups the number of males is more than the number of females. Nevertheless, from twenty to twenty-four years of age this proportion is changed. The total number of males in this age-group is 1,083,364 and the total number of females is 1,110,051. From this age-group where the legal age of marriage for males and females occurs as we go upwards, the number of females is higher than the number of males.

Moreover, the Korean Republic is in an exceptional position in that in the total population the number of men exceeds the number of women. In almost all other countries, and not only in the years of marriage, the number of females is more than that of males; in the total population also the number of females is more than that of males. For example, in, the Soviet Republic the total population is 216,101,000 and out of them 97,840,000 are males and 118,261,000 are females. This difference exists before the age of marriage, and it is likewise seen in the marriageable years, that is, in the twenty to twenty-four year age-group, and in the twenty-five to twenty-nine year, the thirty to thirty-four year and the eighty to eighty- four year age-groups.

Similarly, in England, France, East and West Germany, Czechoslavakia, Poland, Rumania, Hungary, America, Japan, and so forth. However, in certain areas such as East and West Berlin the difference in the number of women and men is more, conspicuous.

In India, even in the marriageable age, the number of men exceeds the number of women. It is only from fifty years upwards that the number of women exceeds the number of men. Perhaps the cause of the shortage in the number of women in India is the old habit of the superstitious people of that country who burn women whose husbands have died.

The latest census which was made in Iran showed that Iran is one of those exceptional countries where in the total population; the number of males is higher than the number of females. The total population of Iran, according to that census is 25,780,910 and out of those 13,337,334 is males and 12,443,576 are females, so in all males are in excess of the number of females by 893,758.

I remember that some of the authors who used to take exception to polygyny in their writings took this factor of the comparative population of males and females in Iran as a part of their evidence and used it as an argument against those writers who wrote in support of polygyny. In this way, they adduced that the law of polygyny should be annulled.

I was all the time surprised and distressed by the writings of these people, and wondered why they had not understood, first of all, that the law of polygyny is not confined to Iran, and that secondly what is important in connection with this subject is that we should know for certain whether the number of men fit to be married is really at par with the number of women of marriageable age, or whether it is more. The fact that the total number of males is greater than the total number of females is not by itself sufficient as far as the subject under consideration is concerned. We saw that in the Republic of Korea, and also in certain other countries, the total number of males is greater than that of females, but that amongst persons able to marry the number of females is higher than the number of males. Leaving alone the fact that in countries like Iran these census figures are not so very dependable, we should keep in mind the common partiality of Iranian women to pose as having given birth to a son to the extent that even in reply to census officials they would not be ready to declare that they had given birth to a daughter. Thus they see that a son is recorded instead of a daughter. This one thing in itself is sufficient to reduce our trust in these figures.

The practical matter of supply and demand in our country is a sufficient proof of the fact that the number of women fit to be married is greater than the number of men. The reason for this is that, in this country, although polygyny was and still is practiced from the cities to the villages and even among the tribal people, yet nobody has felt the shortage of woman and woman has not found a place on the black market. On the contrary this supply has always exceeded the demand. Girls or widows or young women who have been left without husbands by the force of circumstances have always been far in excess of unmarried young men. A man, however penniless or ugly, if he wants to get married, need never be disappointed, for there are many women who have been compulsorily left unmarried. These are every day observations which are more telling and more certain than any statistics.

Ashley Montagu, in his book The Natural Superiority of Women, while vainly attempting to explain that the strong inclination of women towards beautification and elegance arises from self display in public, affirms the fact of the greater number of women. He says, “All over the world the total number of women fit to be married taken together exceeds the number of men.
“The 1950 census showed that the number of women fit to be married in The United States of America exceeded the number of men by one million three thousand four hundred.”

Bertrand Russell in his book Marriage and Morals in the chapter concerning population writes: “There are in England some two million more women than men, and these are condemned by law and custom to remain childless, which is undoubtedly to many of them a great deprivation.”

A few years back we read in the Iranian newspapers that the enormous number of unmarried German women who, as a result of the great number of casualties among Germans in the Second World War, were deprived of having legal husbands and a family life, formally applied to their Government to annul the law of monogamy and to allow polygyny. The German Government, on the basis of this one formal application, asked the Islamic University of al-Azhar to provide them with a formula to implement this. We gathered information, afterwards that the Church had emphatically opposed this step. The Church preferred that women be deprived and that promiscuity should actually increase rather than that there should be polygyny, only because it was an Oriental and Islamic formula.

The selection taken from the “The rights of women in Islam” by Martyr Murtada Mutahhari.

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