June 28, 2008
The Canberra Times

Alarm over polygamy as Muslim women suffer in silence

Consider this scene: a husband and wife in suburban Sydney step out on to the porch of their brown brick home, to pose for a news photographer. She chats away, trying to make them feel relaxed as she takes several snaps; even cracks a few jokes trying to get them to laugh. And why not? This is, after all, supposed to be a happy scene. A modern-day couple going public about their modern-day marriage.

So why is it that ”he” has no trouble smiling for the camera, hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, with his large belly and hips thrust confidently forward, and yet ”she” stands with both her fists tightly clenched?

Stoically upright with the white of her knuckles showing, and a barely disguised snarl on her face, this scene looks anything but an example of modern love and partnership. Instead what I see on the face of this haggard woman is the pain of years of endurance. Buttoned up in a long, black, shapeless coat, with a head scarf covering any wisp of hair (does she have any?) and with any hint of personal adornment hidden, this ”wife” looks like the generic Muslim mother – sexless and devoid of femininity. And that’s the purpose of the bland garb. It’s chosen to make her look ugly and unapproachable, and ultimately like all the other dreary and drab women in her midst. Like most generic brands, she is eminently replaceable. And it seems that’s what her husband would ultimately like to do. Stand her aside, and replace her with another.

The couple is Keysar Trad and his wife Hanifeh, mother of their six children. This week they became fodder for front-page news stories when Trad backed a call by his friend Sheik Khalil Chami, from the Islamic Welfare Centre in Lakemba, for polygamous marriages to be legally recognised in Australia.

Trad is president of the so-called ”self-styled” Islamic Friendship Association, and a well-known spokesman on all matters Muslim. At pains to often present himself as something of an Aussie moderate, Trad has a knack for using the vernacular to smooth over the rough edges of a sharp and uncompromising debate.

On this occasion he’s managed to excel himself with phrases such as ”nothing out of the ordinary”, and suggestions that a man may get ”lonely” and therefore need to take a second wife, or even a third or fourth, as is permissible under Islamic law. But not permissible in Australia – not yet.

It’s alarming that men like Trad and Chami are brazen enough to think that they can open this debate in Australia and expect to be taken seriously.

It’s even more alarming to see that others have added their voice to back them. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this discussion is the screaming silence from Muslim women.

Why isn’t Hanifeh Trad using her tightly clenched fists to punch her husband in the mouth, and his hungry groin?

How much humiliation must Muslim women take before they rise up against such abhorrent male attitudes?

I know for every word I use to hurl abuse at the deeply entrenched misogyny in Islam, 1000 words will be fired back by feisty Muslim women, angry at the suggestion that they are in any way oppressed. And I hear those claims. I just can’t see the evidence.

Polygamy is about sex, power and ownership. In Islam – these are all male domains.

Muslim men control sex and take extra wives for legally sanctified sexual variety. The fact that women too crave sexual variety, and have just as strong sexual inclinations as men, is totally absent from the Islamic thinking – or law – that condones polygamy.

Under such a regime women are not sexual beings in and of themselves.

They have no sexual autonomy. They are but objects who corrupt and entice male desires and bare the children. As such, it makes sense to insist they cover and disguise their femininity and any evidence of their inherent sexuality.

By taking a second, third or fourth wife a Muslim man exerts the ultimate power over a woman. Like a commodity in a shop, she can be bought, used, replaced and put back on the shelf.

Pulled down again for a fiddle and a play, or put to work, then put back in the cupboard when she’s no fun, sick or broken.

The potential power play of favouring one wife over another is so obvious it shouldn’t need explaining. But apparently it does.

Trad, who is himself the son of his father’s second wife, says his mother and wife No1 were like sisters. Only a blind and deeply foolish man can fail to understand the innate human need and desire for exclusive love.

Perhaps the most galling justification given for polygamy is the claim that the man is somehow ”saving” an unmarried, divorced or widowed woman. The suggestion being that all women need a man to look after them and – more importantly – legitimise their existence.

The underlying assumption that a woman’s life lacks respectability or legitimacy if she does not have a husband, is Islam’s greatest insult against women.

Why do Muslim women not challenge this? Islam’s war against women seems to be getting worse and spreading wider.

Stories of ancient and arcane attitudes are appearing daily in our media: from Iran’s ”morality police” and the vicious crackdown on women’s covering, to public flogging for free flowing hair; to Saudi Arabia’s continued ban on women driving or shopping unaccompanied; to Malaysia’s crackdown on women travelling alone; to law that allows men to divorce by SMS; and now to growing argument to allow polygamy in Australia.

All the signals are that life for Muslim women is going backwards fast. Who will rise up and take a brave stand? Women like Hanifeh Trad? I doubt it, even though her fists remain tightly clenched.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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