While waiting for Hind, a young Syrian woman, to meet me at a café in Istanbul last week, I expected a sad-looking refugee recently arrived in Turkey. But when she walked in I saw that Hind wore perfect make up (if applied rather heavily), hair extensions, and polished nails: She was a pulled together, youthful-looking woman of 34 dressed in a fitted, knee-length skirt and a pale pink fitted shirt. She left Syria only five months ago, so I bombarded her with all kinds of questions about the state of the country. How is the security situation? How are people living? How are her family and friends? She answered casually: “Nights are hard as they are full of sounds of bombs, electricity is only two hours a day so it is tough, and people are worried and scared.” These are typical war stories describing circumstances that I have worked and lived through myself. I wanted to hear Hind’s unique, personal story.
Between my sips of Turkish coffee, Hind commented on my appearance:
“Its daring to have your hair so short. Why you cut it so short?”
“Well, its easy,” I answered.
“You care [for] it well,” she said, “but how come you did not do any nose job?”
“Yes, I know I have a big nose but I sort of like it. I feel real beauty is to enjoy what God has given me and not change it,” I answered.
“Well, I did a nose job which didn’t turn out to be good so I had to do three other operations to fix the mistakes,” she explained, adding that she wouldn’t consider cutting her hair short like mine. “I have extension now,” because “the hair dresser burnt it as he was working on my hair. I don’t like it as much but still I would never dare cut my hair like yours.”
I was by now growing more curious about this war refugee who seemed more interested in my hair and nose than my questions about life in Syria from a woman’s perspective. I decided to see where the conversation would lead me, and soon was stunned to learn that Hind had been the second wife in a polygamous marriage.
This, she explained nonchalantly, was why she had left Syria for Istanbul.
“You knew you would be his second wife when you agreed to marry him?” I asked, shocked and curious. I had never before met a “second wife.”
“Oh, yes. I always knew he was married and has 4 children. But I loved him. I worked for him for three years and we had an intense love story. It didn’t matter to me that he had a family. All I wanted is to be married to him and to be with him.”
Hind explained that her parents were against the marriage, that she defied their wishes in going forward with it. Her happiness with her husband was short lived, however. A month into her marriage she realized that he had never told his first wife about wife number two, and that he was afraid to share the news with anybody. So he spent five days a week with his wife and kids and visited Hind in a nearby town only one or two nights a week. Hind didn’t like the situation and decided to take action.
“I call the first wife myself and tell her that I am her husband’s second wife,” Hind explained.
“You did what? You actually called the first wife and told her? What did she say?” By now I was fully captivated by Hind.
“She didn’t believe me at first and hang up on me. So I kept on calling her to tell her it is the truth and I sent her a copy of our marriage certificate to prove it. When she accused me that it was a fake certificate, I went to the courthouse, asked them to issue a certified original one and I sent her the original certificate so there is no way for her to doubt,” Hind said.
“But didn’t you feel bad that you are hurting another woman by marrying her husband to start with?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t care about her at all. I hated her. I wanted her destroyed. I wanted him all for myself.”
The story did not end well for Hind. A series of fights ensued between the first wife and the husband, the husband and Hind, and Hind and the first wife. Every member of that triangular relationship was miserable and it led to two separations. Hind aborted a pregnancy when she knew she was no longer committed to the marriage, applied for divorce and left for Istanbul. The first wife also separated from the husband, though she did not divorce him. And as for the husband, Hind said he escaped his reality by getting a job in Saudi Arabia and living as a bachelor with neither of his wives. When I asked Hind what she’d learned from this experience, she said:
“I no longer believe in polygamous marriage. It is a fantasy for anybody to think that any aspect of it would work. It doesn’t work and it never will. I was wrong and I now know that all these things we hear about how normal it is to be a second wife is an illusion that does not work in practice.”
Hind is referring to a groundswell of support in the region for a return to polygamous marriage, a practice that had been on the wane for decades and now is coming back. On the same day that I met Hind, Turkey passed a new law formally acknowledging the legitimacy of religious marriage without a need for formal registration in the civil court. Now, practices that have been illegal in Turkey for a century — underage marriages and polygamy — will be permissible.
Turkey is not the only country that has changed its laws to re-legitimize polygamy. All of the countries that went through the Arab Spring allowed polygamy as one of the first so-called “reforms.” Women’s rights groups in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere fought this development, but lost that and many other fights. The political confidence to talk about a return to polygamy has been met by a new wave of social acceptance among young women, who are now willing to enter into such marriages. The resurrection of such long-obsolete practices, like the renewed embrace of the headscarf, reflects the long-term agenda of political Islam.
Such “returns” are generally only related to women’s appearance and behavior and men’s sexuality. The aspects of religion that have to do with social justice, such as prohibiting fighting, corruption, and theft, are all being ignored, while a return to “Islamic tradition” focuses in on women with a zoom lens. The trend is a dangerous one that prevents progress. Hind learned through experience that the old values no longer apply to our contemporary lives. It may take many more like her in the Muslim world to speak up before a true reform within the religion is possible.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoirBetween Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.