The Changing Face of Polygamy in Contemporary Malaysia

Published February 13, 2019 by Dr Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif

Dr Nurul Huda reflects on the demographic shift in the practice of polygamy in Malaysia today, its consequences on women and the institution of marriage, and what the state has got to do with it all.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia today, married men are by all means still marriageable. Under Malaysia's existing Islamic Family Law, Muslim men are allowed to practice polygyny – a form of polygamy (multiple marriage) in which one man marries multiple wives. As per the Islamic provision on polygamy stated in the Qurán (4:3), a man may marry up to four wives at a time – if he can prove in court that he has the financial wherewithal to support multiple families, can treat all wives "equally", and has a justifiable reason for marrying additional wives. The financial condition for polygamy imposed by the Shariáh Court heavily favoured wealthy men, making polygamy in Malaysian society historically an elite or aristocratic privilege. But the desire for romance and intimacy does not discriminate based on wealth or status, nor can it be extinguished by a restrictive bureaucracy and inconvenient laws. Malay men from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum aspiring to become polygamous must therefore seek ways to circumvent legal-bureaucratic obstacles to polygamy, to secure a union condoned and recognised by the state, society, and Islam.

A nikah ceremony in Malaysia, celebrated in the presence of friends and family, with ornate decorations and the exchange of gifts (far right) between the bride and the groom.

My recent seminar at the Woolf Institute, entitled "Polygamy for the Masses: Cross-Border Marriage, the Islamic Bureaucracy, and the State in Contemporary Malaysia", explores the ways in which Malaysian couples circumvent such bureaucratic obstacles by eloping to Southern Thailand, where they may contract a quick, discreet, and Shariáh-compliant marriage. These cross-border marriages (perkahwinan rentasan sempadan) are a crime according to Malaysian Shariáh laws and punishable by a fine; nevertheless, they can be registered and legalised in Malaysia, if they fulfill the procedural requirements of marriage (nikah) in Islam. The possibility of contracting cross-border marriages in Thailand has been highly instrumental in opening an alternative pathway to polygamy, particularly for men who would be judged as financially unqualified for polygamy by a Malaysian Shariáh judge. In recent years, more and more Malaysian couples avail to this possibility – paradoxically, with the blessing of the Malaysian state itself. In light of the increasing number of elopements to Thailand, the state has begun to intervene in the marriage-making process in Thailand by standardising and synchronising the nikah procedures, to ensure that its citizens at the very least return from their elopements having contracted a Shariáh-compliant nikah. What was formerly an informal backdoor for quick elopements is now a bureaucratised phenomenon governed by rules and regulations, and paperwork and procedures – all classic characteristics of the formalisation and bureaucratisation of a social practice.

My study contributes to a growing niche within anthropological studies of the state that focus on how state-run Islamic bureaucracies in Southeast Asia demonstrate a stronger tendency to intervene in a widening sphere of everyday life. In Malaysia where Islam is "the state" (which, in itself, is neither a unified nor a monolithic entity), the institutionalisation and administration of Islam through legal policies and state-run bureaucracies points to the state's incontestable right to intrude in the intimate lives of its Muslim subjects. But as I hope to have demonstrated in this presentation, state policies on Islam – and Islamic matters such as marriage – in Malaysia are similarly moulded by pressures on the ground from Muslim actors, who respond to state religious policies in ways that conform or contradict the powers that be. This shows that the bureaucratisation of Islam is neither a linear process, nor an uncontested, hegemonic exercise of power; rather, it is a cyclical, dynamic exchange that draws on responses from the ground that shape state religious policies, which in turn leave their imprint on the everyday lives of Muslim subjects.

A nikah ceremony taking place at the Central Mosque of Songkhla, Southern Thailand. The bride and the groom were unaccompanied by family and friends; note the absence of ritualised gift exchange expected in Malay weddings.

Through an examination of marriage-making at the Malaysian-Thai border, the intervention I propose in my presentation is twofold. First, I suggest that the soaring popularity of cross-border marriages is an unintended effect of increasingly liberal laws by the Malaysian state that have significantly lightened sanctions against this practice, instead according greater leeway and legal recognition to couples marrying in Thailand. Directly following from this, I argue that cross-border marriages allow men with limited financial resources to take on multiple wives without prior permission from the state. This no longer makes polygamy in Malaysia a preserve of the elites, but an increasingly middle-class phenomenon. However, this also means that the men becoming polygamous today are also those who possess scarce financial resources. This is more likely to create greater competition between the co-wives – particularly those who depend on the husband as a common source of financial support – and plenty of unmet economic expectations. The consequences of financial insecurity on marital stability in polygamy are immense; these are often exacerbated by cases of "male negligence", such as the husband's refusal or failure to provide regular and sufficient maintenance (nafkah) to his wives and children. By recognising and legalising cross-border marriages in Thailand, the state allows for an unregulated practice of polygamy that fails to hold men accountable and responsible for their subsequent marriages, leaving countless wives and children in grave risk.

Top 5 provinces in Southern Thailand where Malaysian couples contract cross-border marriages

The bureaucratisation of Islam in Malaysia enables the state to boldly enter domestic domains, even directly intervening in the marriage-making process taking place beyond its own borders and outside of its legal jurisdiction. While this intervention opens up various opportunities for marriage, especially to the unmarried and economically underprivileged, one does question whether it does so to the benefit of all – for its inclination to promote men's right to polygamy suspiciously suggests the protection of patriarchal interests, seemingly at the expense of women and children's well-being.

Dr. Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif is currently a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, the Netherlands. She completed her PhD in Social Anthropology at Queens' College, Cambridge (2018), and had the pleasure of serving briefly as a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). Her current research explores the intersection between intimacy, sorcery and polygamy, also in contemporary Malaysia.

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