Most of this blog focuses on emotional issues, but there have been requests for a look at the legal aspects of polygamy. For many Muslims living outside of Muslim countries, the secular legal status in of their polygamous marriage is questionable. Even in Muslim countries such as Kurdistan, there are fines for men who have more than one wife. Under shariah law, the nikah will be accepted, but when it comes to issues of inheritance or child maintenance, for example, many people do not fully think this through nor make arrangements to secure things as they would want when living under non-shariah law. While the case for polygamy legalization is now and again brought up in non-Muslim countries, by mainly followers of particular Christian denominations in the States, the frequency of non-Muslim countries taking a more strict approach against this comes up in the media quite often nowadays.
Since homosexual marriages have become legal in many countries, polygamy supporters have increasingly called for legalization of plural marriages. Here we can see how culture also has an effect on the practicalities of polygamy (see here for cultural effects at an emotional level). Up until fairly recently, homosexuality was culturally a no no, and the law reflected that. This is currently the case for polygamy in most of the world.
But whether it’s legal or not it doesn’t stop it happening; there is nothing in these countries forbidding extra marital affairs, two, three or four-timing with numerous girlfriends, nor the fathering of children outside of marriage. In fact I’ve read of some non-Muslims being more ‘cool’ about someone being in polygamy than the average Muslim who would find it, whether openly or in their heart, repulsive.
So usually the first wife is married legally in whichever country they reside, and any subsequent wives have the same legal status as a girlfriend i.e. no legal rights. Any children are not automatically assumed to be the father’s, and a husband’s medical insurance would probably not cover the subsequent wives (most relevant in the USA where medical costs are high and not covered by the state). In the program Sister Wives, there was the drama of the first wife getting a divorce from the husband in order to have custody of his other wives’ children.
If a husband wants to acquire the same nationality or residence permit for a second wife, it is likely to be problematic if he already has a wife legally registered in that country.
It is particularly important for a man to have a will drawn up in these situations where multiple wives are involved because if not, only the first wife and their children will receive any assets on her husband’s passing. If not, it will then be up to to her to then distribute it fairly in accordance with Islam, which will not be legally obliged on her by the non-Muslim country of residence.
So just because polygamy is illegal in most countries does not mean a Muslim woman can turn round and say her husband cannot marry again, but it does bring up issues which men especially have to consider. Polygamy, as in marriage in general, is nothing to go into without careful thought. There are so many aspects to consider: emotional, financial, as well as legal, that sometimes I wonder why a man would want to cause themselves so many potential headaches, (and I looked at the reasons here). But I am not a man, and I have to trust the Creator for making them like they are, and pray that those that choose the path of polygamy do it in a wise, considered way.