It’s clear that the United Arab Emirates is seriously investing in women’s empowerment throughout all sectors of the society. Unlike in most Arab countries, women are visible in many public sectors in the UAE, starting with officials at the first entry point to the country: passport control officers at the airport. They wear the traditional black abaya with the black headscarf, reflecting more their national tradition than anything else — just as the men wear a long white garment with a white headscarf. Most daily newspapers have a section dedicated to covering women’s issues, and as the country prepared for its Federal National Council elections, held October 3, the UAE was proud to see women representing 22 percent of the nominees (76 candidates out of a total of 341). But such progress has not stopped one candidate in the FNC elections from loudly calling for polygamy as a way to address “spinsterhood” and increase the population in the UAE.
According to 7Days, a national newspaper in the UAE, Sultan Al Nadeeb, a 30-year-old candidate, has chosen advocacy for multiple marriage as his campaign platform, triggering debate between women and men, especially on social media. According to Mr. Nadeeb, the country needs to address the fact that there are 175,000 unmarried women in UAE who are over the age of 30. “The train has passed them,” as the Arabic saying goes. These women are considered old and undesirable for marriage, despite their level of education or work success.
Mr. Nadeeb’s idea is to offer financial incentives and housing funds to men who have more than one wife, and thus increase the UAE’s native population, which stands at only 13 percent of the 9.5 million total — the remaining 87 percent are expatriates in the country on work visas. According to 7Days, Mr. Nadeeb has already informed his only wife that he will take another wife if he succeeds in changing the policy to one that incentivizes multiple marriages. His own father had two wives and, as Mr. Nadeeb sees it, this is a man’s right, assuming that he has the financial means.
Whether Mr. Nadeeb is the Donald Trump of the UAE, making provocative statements for the sake of attention, is not known. But he got front-page coverage for his campaign, and has triggered both angry dissent and support for his views.
Polygamy is a longstanding source of tension between Muslim women and men. The Quran mentions the practice, but attaches to it many warnings and caveats that have been ignored by mainstream cultures — the reference starts with encouragement to help orphans and widows in their own separate households. If a man cannot afford to do that, then he may formalize his relationship by marrying the woman and bringing her into his household. The Quran then clearly warns that a man should only marry more than one woman if he can treat all of his wives equally — a virtually impossible feat. But if a man believes that he can do the impossible, then he can go ahead and marry a second, a third, and a fourth wife. That is unmistakably stated in the Quran. Many learned scholars point to the conditionality of the multiple marriages as an attempt to deal with societal challenges of the time. Today, the clearly stated “impossibility” of equality is the biggest blind spot for men, who see the reference as a blanket allowance for them to marry up to four wives.
The practice had disappeared in many parts of the Arab world, where it lingered almost exclusively among rural populations with limited access to education throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But that reality has changed over the last two decades. The religion has taken a new, fundamentalist form as financial and physical insecurity has spread in the region. It has now become more common to see the practice accepted by young, educated urban women in countries like Iraq and Syria — women looking for stability and security through marriage. It was unheard of for educated women to accept such a thing in the 1980s. At that time, Tunisia had abolished polygamy and the practice had almost disappeared from countries such as Libya, Syria and Iraq. To many women’s surprise, the demand for a return of polygamy was one of the first articulations in post Arab spring discussions in Libya and Tunisia. The revival of the discredited practice accompanied the wave of political Islam that spread with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology in the post Arab Spring era.
But polygamy never disappeared in Gulf countries, where the practice has been an ongoing regional tradition. It is not uncommon in countries such as the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to see young men in their 30s have two wives, while this would be unusual in the Levantine region or North Africa. Many young men in the UAE complain about the pressure they are put under by their families to marry more than one wife. For the family, the practice may be part of tradition in the Gulf, but the young men, many of them Western educated, are conflicted. A couple of young men I interviewed in the UAE described the mixed messages they must process: from their families and from young, modern women who themselves feel torn between wanting independence and freedom and wanting security and stability to be provided exclusively by men. Women in their 20s and 30s don’t deny this paradoxical desire for equality and the cultural expectation that financial stability be provided exclusively by the man.
Whatever his intention may be, Mr. Nadeeb certainly touched a sensitive nerve with his campaign strategy — a point of tension between modernity and tradition. Whether his is an indigenous solution to increase the population rate or a misogynist interpretation of Islam, many women and men are outraged by the proposition and feel it is a step backward. As for Mr. Nadeeb, he believes his ideas are supported by many women. He told 7Days, “They say, ‘We are getting old and cannot find a suitable husband’”.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.