Polygamy for the Masses: Cross-Border Marriage, the Islamic Bureaucracy, and the State in Contemporary Malaysia
Polygamy (specifically, polygyny, in which one man marries multiple wives) in Malaysia has historically been a reserve of the Malay aristocratic and urban elite. Legal provisions in Malaysian Islamic Family Law furthermore tend to favor affluent men by requiring aspiring polygamists to prove their financial wherewithal — as well as their eligibility for polygamy in other aspects — before they may marry additional wives. In recent years however, more and more men are able to marry their second, third, or fourth wives without meeting this financial condition by contracting their marriage in Southern Thailand by a cooperative and unquestioning Thai Islamic bureaucracy. This is further facilitated by recent interventions of the Malaysian state: to ensure these cross-border marriages comply with certain Shari’ah standards, the Malaysian state has begun formalizing and synchronizing marriage procedures, as well as reducing fines and expediting the marriage validation process in Malaysian Shari’ah courts. In this paper, I illustrate how increasing state formalization of cross-border marriage engenders several unintended consequences: first, this facilitates covert elopements by creating a transparent pathway to a Shariah-compliant and state-condoned marriage in Thailand. Second, this indiscriminately allows Malay middle-class men with little financial wherewithal to realize their polygamous aspirations. These various inconsistencies and legal loopholes on marrying in Thailand can be a productive space for the manipulation of the law to secure marriage and intimacy, but may also increase the risks of contracting economically and emotionally precarious unions, especially in polygamy.
Dr Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif is a social anthropologist and Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden. She read anthropology and French Studies at the University of Western Australia and Sciences Po Paris, before completing her PhD in Social Anthropology at Queens’ College, Cambridge in 2018. Her doctoral research explores the relationship between marriage, intimacy, and the state in contemporary Malaysia, with a focus on how changing marriage patterns and recent legal amendments facilitating cross-border marriages create a favorable climate for polygyny. Prior to joining IIAS, she had the pleasure of serving briefly as a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV).
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