I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Cairo when a man came up to me. He commented on what I was wearing, suggesting that I wear red more often.
I was used to this. Egyptian culture, unlike the culture that I grew up in, encourages men to have opinions about things like the colors that women wear. Men will accompany their wives to makeup counters, and even go alone to department stores to purchase high-end cosmetics and perfume for their wives, mothers, and sisters.
We fell into conversation. His English was excellent. As we spoke, he mentioned Islam and asked if I was married. I was used to this, too. Muslim men in Cairo – even married Muslim men – would often approach single women and flirt with or proposition them. A common line was “I should take you as my second wife.” It was always a bit jarring to me, as an American woman, to have men approach me in an obviously lusty, flirtatious way when they were already married. But this particular man in the lobby had not yet married. He was planning on working a few more years before he did so.
Did he plan to marry more than one woman? I asked.
His brow furrowed. “No.” He had always wanted one wife, and only one.
I was genuinely surprised at this. I had never heard such a response, not once, in all of my time in North Africa.
I asked him why. He looked me in the eye for a moment and then told his story. His mother had been his father’s first wife. His earliest memories were of his parents as a happy couple. Then, when he was eight, his father married again, a second wife. As a little boy, he watched his mother’s heart break, and saw her turn from a mirthful, laughing, joyful person into a devastated, broken woman, slighted by a husband who turned his affections to the new wife and came to ignore her, his first love.
He paused, then looked at me again. “I would never take a second wife. I would never do that to my son.”
This brief encounter has stayed with me. His reason for not wanting to be a polygamist surprised me for its blunt honesty, for its clarity. I would have expected him to say that he would not take a second wife because he did not want to break the heart of his first wife. But he was saying even more – taking another wife would hurt his children as well. His mother’s agony had made an imprint upon him.
I’ve thought a lot about this in relation to LDS polygamy. In Islam, polygamy – or, more accurately, polygyny – differs markedly from the way LDS polygyny was practiced in the nineteenth century in several fundamental ways (a post on this is forthcoming).
Most important for this post, polygyny in Islam is not only practiced differently – it is also, at its base, viewed and understood differently. Taking an additional wife in Islam is neither a salvific act nor a particularly meritorious one. The common justifications given for polygyny, based on the Qur’an (see here, verse three, and here for the two verses that deal with it directly) and hadith literature are related to male weakness, with the implication that it is better to marry a woman than to fornicate or commit adultery. The Qur’anic verses emphasize the necessity to treat all wives equally, and state that doing so is very difficult. (Some Muslims understand this to mean that it is impossible to treat wives equally, and that therefore polygyny should in actuality be forbidden.) Either way, polygyny is not related to exaltation (or its Muslim afterlife correlate) and is not considered a higher or superior marital arrangement relative to monogamy. Because of this, Muslim women may voice their displeasure with it without being perceived as unfaithful or unrighteous.
LDS polygyny, on the other hand, was from its earliest days described and promoted as a step towards achieving exaltation. It was lived and practiced as an expression of faith and commitment to ideals. Because of this, LDS women who lived it were expected to handle the emotional fallout. Living it without complaint was an expression of devotion to God; jealousy and bitterness were understood as weaknesses and tests of faith. Heartbreak was to be swallowed. I find that – the notion that polygyny was to be both lived and loved as a lifestyle by the truly righteous – to be among the hardest parts of our cultural legacy.