In Afghanistan, Polygamy on Rise

Kabul, Afghanistan - Shah Mohammed is a chivalrous man. Two years ago, he assessed his war-ravaged, native land and determined that two decades of fighting had created a surplus of marriageable women. To help correct this perceived imbalance, he honorably took a second wife.

"It is ethical and virtuous to marry a second time," Mohammed reasoned. "Because so many men were killed or left the country during the war, we have families with three, four, even five girls who can't find a good husband. Their parents are suffering because they have so many daughters to support."

And what if, as in Mohammed's case, a 54-year-old man takes a 17-year-old girl as his second bride? "Why not?" he replied with an affable laugh.

Actually, it appears that men outnumber women in Afghanistan. Still, women's advocates say polygamy, which is permitted under traditional interpretations of Islam and is practiced in most of the Muslim world, has increased in Afghanistan in the past decade or so. After the end of Soviet occupation in 1989 and the subsequent fall of communist rule here, commanders of the conservative, anti-Soviet mujahideen guerrillas and the Taliban collected wives as they consolidated power and money. Soldiers and civilians who could afford to followed suit.

The renewed popularity of polygamy coincided with a broad erosion of women's rights under the post-Soviet regime of the mujahideen and particularly under the Taliban. Now that Afghanistan has a new interim government and is in the world's gaze, many women's groups are lobbying for men to abandon polygamy just as they press women to shed their head-to-toe veils.

"Polygamy may have made sense at the time of the Prophet Mohammed but it has no place in modern Afghan society," said Shoukria Haidar, president of Negar, a Paris-based group that is seeking equal rights for Afghan women.

Muslim men are allowed four wives, according to the Quran, the holy book containing commands that Muslims believe Allah transmitted to the seventh century prophet, Mohammed.

Fatana Said Gailani, director of the Afghanistan Women's Council, an advocacy group based in Pakistan, said Mohammed's decree came amid a shortage of men. "The great Prophet Mohammed said for men to marry not just for sex and enjoyment but to take care of women who were suffering or widowed with many children," Gailani said.

In Afghanistan these days, there is no shortage of men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In every age range, it estimates that Afghan men outnumber women.

"In recent years in Afghanistan, commanders and other men have been taking many women just to have a younger wife," Gailani said. "This is giving Islam a bad name."

Haji Abdul Ghafar, a 75-year-old auto repair shop owner in Kabul, was quick to say he sought youth in the four wives he's married in 24 years. "Everyone who marries a subsequent time wants someone younger and better than his previous wives," he said with a giggle.

Often, men must pay dearly for their prizes. Under Afghan tradition, the groom provides a dowry. "I gave them 10,000 Afghanis, which was a small fortune back then, as well as 210 kilos of rice, 70 kilos of meat, 70 kilos of flour, 21 kilos of potatoes, 21 kilos of onions, 5 gallons of gas and 700 kilos of firewood," recalled Dadullah, a 75-year-old Kabul butcher, of his payment to the family of his second bride, Nafasgull, in the 1960s. Like many Afghans, they use only one name.

Sometimes, Afghan polygamists pay emotionally as well. In the early 1970s, a popular TV sitcom here called "The Two Wives" featured a husband henpecked by warring spouses.

But in most cases, women's activists say, wives are the ones who suffer. "Only educated and wealthy women, who are in the minority here, are able to divorce easily," said Sima Samar, the new minister of women's affairs. "Most of the rest have to accept whatever husband their parents give them."

Dadullah agreed. "My first wife became upset and unhappy and said, 'Why did you do this?'" he recounted. "I told her I did this because I wanted to. She could do nothing. Finally, she got used to it."

First marriages are almost always arranged by the couple's parents. Unless the bride and groom are related, they often don't meet until after they're engaged. So some men marry again for love. After his first wife died, Kabul antiques dealer Said Ghullam Hassan wed a second picked by his parents "but I didn't get along with her at all," he said. "So I took a third wife. She is a relative and we are very happy."

Most men, however, accept their subsequent wives sight unseen. Haji Sardar Mohammed, 55, an antiques dealer, let his first wife, Bashtun, and his two sisters select his second wife, Gulalai. Bashtun also helped prepare the wedding and attended the ceremony.

"I was happy for my husband to remarry. I was tired. I had lots of children and I didn't have time to take care of him properly," Bashtun said as she ate dinner with her husband, Gulalai and 10 of the two women's 18 children, who range in age from 1 1/2 to 35. "If he wants a third wife, let him have her."

Some men say they remarry only because their first wives can't bear children. "Even if my first wife had only given me a blind daughter I wouldn't have married again, but she could give me no children at all," lamented Alhaj Sardar Ebadi, 64, a retired police officer, as he sat in his Kabul apartment flanked by his two wives.

"When I found out he was engaged again I cried and cried," recalled Sajia, Ebadi's first wife. "But later I thought, 'If he wants children this is right, so I accept.'"

"I didn't know he already had a wife when the engagement was arranged," said Ebadi's second wife, Naqiba. "Of course I was upset. But I could do nothing about it because we are Afghans."

Sajia and Naqiba said they worked hard at becoming friends and that Sajia helped Naqiba raise her seven children. But Ebadi anguished over the arrangement for years. "Each wife was living in separate rooms in our apartment. Every time I spent the night with one wife I would think of the other, suffering and lonely," he said.

When multiple wives live in the same house, they usually establish a hierarchy. For example, Haji Sardar Mohammed's first wife, Bashtun, 52, looks after the younger children he had with his second wife, Gulalai, 40, who in turn makes more of the decisions about running the house. But the two women cook together, eat together and pray together.

"She is my best friend and like a daughter," Bashtun said of Gulalai.

"She is my best friend and like a mother," Gulalai said of Bashtun. Such solidarity is common among multiple wives, according to Haidar.

Despite their wish to end polygamy, Afghan women's activists doubt the practice will be stopped very soon. More likely, they say, is a gradual decline as increasing numbers of women who were closeted at home during the Taliban era return to the work force and demand their rights with the backing of the international community.

Perhaps some men will promote such change as well by thinking twice about betrothing their daughters to married men. When asked if he'd allow his daughters to marry a man who already had a wife, Haji Sardar Mohammed replied adamantly: "No way!"