An open secret

PlygamynislamA few weeks ago we looked at some particularly good religious coverage of a polygamous Muslim family in the Bronx that suffered unimaginable loss in a housefire. The polygamous nature of the family raised many questions that were inappropriate to address during the grieving period. But New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein issued a great follow-up last week with her story about widespread polygamy practiced by African Muslim immigrants to New York. How's this for a beginning?:

She worked at the Red Lobster in Times Square and lived with her husband near Yankee Stadium. Yet one night, returning home from her job, Odine D. discovered that African custom, not American law, held sway over her marriage.

A strange woman was sitting in the living room, and Ms. D.'s husband, a security guard born in Ghana, introduced her as his other wife.

Devastated, Ms. D., a Guinean immigrant who insisted that her last name be withheld, said she protested: "I can't live with the woman in my house -- we have only two bedrooms." Her husband cited Islamic precepts allowing a man to have up to four wives, and told her to get used to it. And she tried to obey.

The story is full of anecdotes of similarly anguished women, immigrants to America, who feel powerless to fight polygamy even though it's outlawed in every state in the union. The author points out that polygamy is usually associated with splinter Mormon groups rather than immigrant families. Bernstein talks about how the law doesn't deal with the practice, even social service agencies. Only one marriage is legal while the others are sealed in religious ceremonies overseas.

The story pushes the point that this is not about Islam so much as cultural mores. Both certainly play a role but it is interesting to note, above, how the woman credits Islamic precepts for her polygamous life while the reporter credits African custom. Here Bernstein comes right out with her take:

Islam is often cited as the authority that allows polygamy. But in Africa, the practice is a cultural tradition that crosses religious lines, while some Muslim lands elsewhere sharply restrict it. The Koran says a man should not take more than one wife if he cannot treat them all equally -- a very high bar, many Muslims say.

There is no question that polygamous practice varies in Muslim lands. And yet there's also no question that the Koran permits taking up to four wives. How that is interpreted is up to debate but the people interviewed for the story -- such as Odine D. above -- point to religion. Here's another interviewee who also sees Islam as being integral to the practice:

"It's difficult, but one accepts it because it's our religion," said Doussou Traore, 52, president of an association of Malian women in New York, who married an older man with two other wives who remain in Mali. "Our mothers accepted it. Our grandmothers accepted it. Why not us?"

The story shows the challenges of accepting polygamy in New York when it is part of such a misogynous way of life. In addition to genital mutiliation, the women profiled are kept in check through beatings and threats of divorce, according to Bernstein. Divorce would lead to them being shunned or losing their immigration status. Despite her seeming pooh-poohing of the religious facet of the practice, it's worthwhile read with tons of first-hand information on a secretive practice.

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