The Islamic Garden
Cowives speak out
The following arose out of an
interview with two cowives living in
* * *
The first wife, Khadija (not her real name), has three children and the second wife, Amina (not her real name), was single with six children when she married into this situation. Khadija and Amina knew each other for a long time before the second marriage.
"I have always admired her," said Khadija.
Khadija's family roots are in
The husband is Algerian, and Amina is a revert to Islam and an Australian.
Khadija and Amina agree that there are a number of polygynous marriages that are not successful. However, both wives believe that the fact that their husband has traveled a lot has taught him much wisdom and has enriched his thinking.
Khadija had to defend polygyny many times, even to her Muslim relatives, who, one would think, would know better.
"If I'm upset, they blame my marriage situation."
Khadija admits that, in the beginning, she had low self-esteem, but it got better after her husband remarried. "I felt valued because my husband treated me so well. I've grown through the experience, because the situation forced me to grow," she said.
Her family and cultural background had taught her to think that she would be put on the shelf with this kind of marital arrangement. On the contrary, Khadija was part of the process of her husband getting remarried, and that made her happy.
"I supported him through it and left the decision to him."
When the wedding day arrived, Khadija attended the wedding.
"I was criticized by my family and friends, and I told them it was none of their business and that it was important for me to go. Both my husband and Amina wanted me to be there. I've shared all my life with him and this was part of his life."
"I love my husband and if he's happy, I'm happy. I want to be loved and cared for, and that has never changed."
Khadija believes that society is insecure with itself.
"When this kind of marriage works out, it becomes scary for people because they are worried that it might happen to them and that they will not be able to cope. They are actually happy when they think there are problems and are very happy if it doesn't work out. I wouldn't find it a problem if my husband decided to marry a third wife. I've been through it before, so I'd be OK."
The only problem Khadija can foresee is that it would be emotionally difficult to spend less time with her husband, as the days would have to be shared three ways instead of two.
When Amina looks back, she wonders how she ever managed.
"The biggest thing for me as a single mother was the level of responsibility when making important decisions — there was no one to consult with."
In the beginning of the new marriage, it was difficult for her to get the older children used to the idea of sharing a family. Now after two and a half years, the oldest daughter, now in her late teens, says if her mother is happy, she is happy. She sees that the family is content and stable, and that's what really matters.
Amina was not sure how her non-Muslim family would react because this kind of marriage is unusual to them. Khadija began speaking to them about polygyny for some time before Amina remarried, allowing them time to think about it and understand better.
Now they are fine with the arrangement and she still visits them. "They just want me to be happy," said Amina.
Khadija feels it is an advantage to have had some years alone with her husband, which built a strong relationship. Amina commented, "It takes longer for bonding to occur as the second wife, so patience is necessary."
"I respect the fact that he respects the privacy of each wife," commented Khadija. Both Khadija and Amina agreed that there is always a part of a husband's life that isn't the wife's business. This doesn't happen in a monogamous marriage. Sometimes the cowives might notice that something is troubling him, but their husband cannot talk about it.
Both wives agreed to give permission for him to stay with the other wife before and after giving birth. They admit that when they do something like that — something noble — they feel enriched. They are happy that they live in separate houses and consider it to be healthy to be apart. Being too close together could breed jealousy and bad feelings. They stay in touch and visit each other as they live only a ten-minute drive away from each other.
The children have grown up with this marriage arrangement and therefore find it normal. They feel secure in what is a strong family network. Khadija is very calm with the children, and this has an affect on the parenting style of the second wife, Amina.
"I feel secure, so that if something happens to me, my kids will be OK, and if something happens to our husband, we have each other. I admire the way Khadija communicates with the children. She is an interactive and very loving mother. I always see her being positive and active. She makes me feel like a part of the family and the children feel that way too," said Amina.
If someone asks the children how many brothers and sisters they have, they always include the children from both families. As this marriage has worked out, the children might not rule out a similar marriage situation for their future. Amina's eldest daughter has been in this family set-up for two and a half years, and she commented, "I look at this kind of marriage as a maybe. I'm just open-minded about it. It depends on many things."
Khadija said that many of her friends have been supportive even though personally they would not accept to be in such a marriage. Sometimes people feel that the second wife is a "home breaker" or that there must have been something wrong with the first wife which made the husband seek another one. Both women commented that people are often disappointed because they are actually friends. People are even more disappointed that there are no major problems.
Advice for Men
A man who is thinking of taking a second wife who has children has to remember that it is a huge responsibility. He will have an already established family that has its own ways. It will not be like his present family. It's a different one with a different character and dynamics. He has to take its members as they are without being determined to change them too much.
He has to be flexible and not expect to get his own way in everything. At the same time, he has to be very clear in giving the new family boundaries and offer a sense of security to the children. He will have to possess leadership qualities — be assertive, have a strong identity, and not be easily manipulated. A husband with two wives will have to be wise, fair, patient, and have good self-esteem.
Khadija commented, "People must be sure their marriage is stable before considering this kind of marriage, and the first wife has to feel secure within herself."
The man will marry someone who already has experience with children, and both wives will have guiltless time with their children when the husband is at the home of the other wife.
"It takes the pressure off a bit, and I get time to myself," said Khadija.
As for the second wife's point of view, she knows he understands how to make a marriage work. Khadija and Amina noted that no one should go into a second marriage thinking that it will fix the problems in the first one.
Because the relationship between Khadija and Amina is good, they can send their children to each other's homes for a visit and feel assured that the children will be well taken care of.
Khadija said that she learned a lot about raising children from Amina. Amina is very calm and never raises her voice even though she has six children.
Amina said, "The house is very happy and loving," and referring to Khadija, "I know she will always be there for me."
Polygyny is actually worse for the husband. The cowives have their own place and are stable, but the husband has to
Struggle to keep up with both homes without a break
Shoulder a lot of responsibility
Solve each family's own set of problems
Take care of two lots of children (take them to school, the doctor, extracurricular activities, and so on)
"There are many more advantages for the cowives," Khadija and Amina agreed.
For the marriages to be successful, everyone has to play their part. The relationship could be strong, but bad behavior could break everything that has been built up.
Generally, human relations are fragile, so even if the marriage failed, it would not be because of polygyny itself, but because of the behavior. Both Khadija and Amina said it is better to love the one your husband loves.