This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia
According to Islamic Law, a man is allowed to marry up to four wives, which is why polygamy is legal across the majority of the Arab world. The role and status of each wife, though, depends on both the region and each individual family. Unsurprisingly, having to share your husband's attention often leads to tension between the women – with the first wife especially resentful towards all the so-called "intruders" on her original, happy setup.
To avoid this altogether, many men keep their multiple marriages a secret from their wives – a trick that only really works when you're rich and can afford to house them and all your children separately. In turn, some women don't tell their friends about their husband's other partners because young people in the region are becoming more outspoken on how polygamy is an arrangement that is designed to serve patriarchy.
VICE Arabia spoke with Shuh* from Egypt who is a second wife. She talked about what it's like to share her husband with another woman, what her friends and family think about it and about how'd she feel if her partner got a third wife.
VICE: Did you know your husband was married when you guys started dating?
Shuh: Of course. We were friends for two years before we got engaged, so I knew all about his married life. I turned down his first proposal because I wasn’t sure being a second wife was the sort of life I wanted to have. But he was very persuasive, and kept telling me that he couldn’t live without me and would never give up trying. So I agreed, with the mutual understanding that I would accept that he will always have commitments to his other family, and he would never ignore his financial and emotional responsibilities towards me.
Does your husband's first wife know about your relationship?
She only knew about it at beginning – she doesn’t know that we got married. She knew when he proposed and, at first, she was fine with it because she could see that I was an important part of our husband’s life. But she eventually changed her mind, and asked him not to marry me. That's why we've had to keep our marriage a secret. To be honest, I don’t care if she finds out about me, because nothing will change.
How do your friends and family feel about your marriage?
My family have known about it from the beginning. We talk about everything, and rely on each other for advice. My mother didn’t want me to become a second wife because she had been one and her experience was bad, and she did not want me to go through what she did. But she eventually gave me her blessing after getting to know my husband; he’s become very close to my family. My friends tell me that they're happy as long as I'm happy and the relationship is built on honesty and trust.
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Between you and his first wife, who got the better deal?
I haven’t really thought much about her or her feelings. All I care about is being a good wife to my husband. I can’t expect her to be happy with the situation. It's difficult for any woman to accept the idea of her husband marrying another woman.
Honestly, she probably has the better deal, because they have children together. If it really came down to it, he would obviously choose his children over me. It can hurt to think about it, and sometimes I do feel a little regret. I always wanted to be the first and last wife in my husband's life, but I can’t say I’m unhappy – I'm very satisfied. But things are getting better – my husband is giving me a lot more attention as time passes. This motivates me to be a more loving and caring wife, and fills me with confidence that I've made the right choice.
Would you like to have children?
Yes, absolutely. I would really love a daughter. But more importantly, I want to raise my kids in a stable environment. Being someone's second wife was my choice, and I would never want that decision to affect my children in a negative way. I won't have kids unless I can provide the right family setting for them.
Would you give your daughter away to a man who is already married?
Of course not. Even though I am happy and satisfied with my current situation, it’s not something to aspire to. It’s just a lifestyle that suits my personality. I love the amount of personal freedom I get when he is away with his family, but I wouldn't want my daughter to feel like she wasn't the most important person in her husband's life.
Is there anything you hate about being a second wife?
The best thing about my situation is also the worst: On the one hand, I'm a working woman who enjoys a lot of freedom and independence because my husband is away a lot. For half of the month, I don’t have to worry about cooking or tidying up for him. But on the other hand, I often miss him – he’s rarely around when I‘m sick or just need someone to care for me.
Do you understand why so many feminists are against polygamy?
No, I don’t think it makes much sense. Just as women have the right to marry whomever they want, men also have the right to find another partner who will cater for them in ways their other wives won't. Can all these feminists ensure that every wife can look after their husband well enough to stop him from looking for another wife? I don’t think so. In my opinion, it’s a woman’s responsibility to maintain a successful marriage. Men are like pampered children, that's why women have to be more understanding and responsive to their duties at home.
Do you think mainstream Arab TV offers accurate representations of what life is like for a second wife?
Not really. Most shows present ridiculously unrealistic models of polygamous households. For example, the show The Family of Hajj Metwalli shows the wives as being best friends, which is almost never the case – there is always something to be jealous or angry about. Sure it’s possible for the first wife to just ignore the "intruders”, but there won't be any love between them.
Would you allow your husband to marry a third wife?
No, I wouldn't. And I'm pretty certain that he would never want to. As long as he's open and honest about what I'm doing wrong as a wife, then I can't see why I won't be able to fix the problem. But getting married again just for the sake of having a new wife is completely unacceptable to me. If a woman looks after her husband, and takes responsibility for the upkeep of their home, then her partner should have no reason to look for another wife.