The Magazine

Polygamy Versus Democracy

You can't have both.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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IT TOOK A TELEVISION SERIES about a Viagra-popping patriarch with three friendly/jealous wives and tightly scheduled evenings to set off a serious public debate about polygamy. And that was precisely the intention of the creators of this now infamous television show--no, not Big Love, the American series that debuted on HBO in March, but 'Ailat Al-Hagg Metwalli (Hagg Metwalli's Family), an Egyptian serial that stirred emotions and sparked a bitter debate about polygamy in the Muslim world during the holy month of Ramadan 2001.

The drama heats up when fiftysomething Metwalli Said, longtime husband of three, decides to court a young woman, Samira, in the hope of making her his fourth wife. Unbeknownst to Metwalli, Samira is in love with his own son, who is eventually forced by his father to forsake Samira to marry the daughter of a relative (as is often preferred in Muslim societies). Metwalli's Viagra-induced heart attack brings the story to a head.

Metwalli's polygamy serves as a kind of Rorschach test of Muslim modernization. Studying viewer responses to this serial, Norwegian historian of religion Anne Sofie Roald found that assimilated Muslim immigrant women in the West see Metwalli as a dictator: running around on his wives, forcing them to give up their jobs, forbidding them to leave the house without permission, selfishly forcing his son out of a love marriage, and generally insisting that his word is law.

Yet some unassimilated Muslim immigrant women in Europe, and many Muslim men, admire Metwalli for successfully embodying polygamy as authorized by Islam. Metwalli follows the Koranic precepts: telling all of his wives that he loves them, materially supporting them well and equally, and generally managing his family in the interests of all. Even Metwalli's son eventually comes around: Affection burgeons in his arranged marriage after his wife bears him a child.

The Ramadan TV special the year after 'Ailat Al-Hagg Metwalli--another Egyptian serial, this one based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion--was widely reported and discussed in the West. Yet the polygamy serial is at least as revealing. For one thing, it serves as a reminder that in Muslim immigrant enclaves in Europe, Middle Eastern TV is often the entertainment of choice. In Denmark, for example, Muslim immigrants who might otherwise be watching the local media and absorbing democratic values watch fare such as 'Ailat Al-Hagg Metwalli via satellite dish or on the Arabic-language cable channels provided for segregated Muslim communities in Scandinavia.

More important, the popular series stirred discussion of polygamy. Around 2001, probably less than 3 percent of men in Egypt had more than one wife. Yet this series glamorizing polygamy set off fear among Muslim women who felt themselves potentially subject to a husband's second marriage. The serial stimulated pro-polygamy sentiment as well. Supporters, including the show's creators, argued that polygamy is a religiously proper alternative to adultery, divorce, and remarriage, and a real answer for the many unmarried women who might otherwise have no chance at motherhood. Opponents replied that polygamy opens the way to marital discord, divorce, and the consequent destitution and abandonment of women and children.

And that's just among Muslims. In the United States, years before Big Love made plural marriage fodder for mass entertainment, a debate over polygamy was already underway in the law journals. Today, the dominant school of thought in American family law favors recognition for the egalitarian practice of multipartner union known as "polyamory." And since the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which voided laws criminalizing sodomy, law journals have begun to publish calls for the decriminalization, regulation, and recognition of the "patriarchal polygamy" practiced today by so-called fundamentalist Mormons (but vigorously condemned by the mainstream Mormon church). Justice Scalia's stinging dissent in Lawrence warned that the Court's general disallowance of morals-based legislation was bound to call into question laws against polygamy. And so it has.