Salwa, a 41-year-old mother of three, said her life fell to pieces when she learnt of her husband’s betrayal.
She said she could not understand why he would marry a younger woman, which made her feel obsolete and broken, a condition she shares with thousands of Jordanian “first wives.”
“There were no signs or even a hint of what he intended to do. He told me a simple sentence at dinner: ‘I found another wife and we are now together. You are welcome to stay or leave’,” Salwa (not her real name) recalled her 52-year-old husband saying.
“For a moment, I did not understand and I thought he was joking because before that he had complained and joked about the cold food he was eating but he was serious,” she said.
“I had the choice to accept and move on or ask for a divorce and face the harsh reality of being labelled a divorced woman by our society, which can be unmerciful and cruel because they will brand me as the woman who stood in the face of her husband’s happiness.”
A report by the Supreme Judge Department, an independent government body connected directly to the prime minister’s office, stated that 30,538 polygamy contracts were registered among the 402,088 marriage contracts in Jordan over the past five years.
A resigned Salwa said she accepted the bitter reality but refused to stay with her husband.
“How can one share his private life with a complete stranger?” she asked. “On one hand, I blame my husband and myself but I also blame the second wife for ruining a home. How can she guarantee he will not marry again and break up her home?”
Jordan’s chief of Islamic justice, Abdul Karim Khasawneh, said almost 7% of the 77,700 marriage contracts signed in 2017 ended in divorce within one year. The total number of divorces during the year was 25,942, nearly one-third of all marriages. In 2018, there were 20,279 divorces.
While several women’s organisations have been fighting polygamy, the Association to Advocate Polygamy has been promoting multiple marriages since 2011. Its members say taking multiple wives is one way to protect unmarried females, especially in a country, such as Jordan, where spinsterhood is on the rise.
Based in Karak, south of Amman, the group has had mass weddings and seeks to eliminate dowries.
Many Middle Eastern countries permit polygamy under Islamic law, which states that a man can marry as many as four wives if he is financially able to treat them all equally. The practice, however, is rare and many women in the Middle East say polygamy has no place in a modern society.
Muna Hamed, 35, a single employee, said she would never accept to be a second wife.
“Those who support multiple marriages use religious justifications to back their opinion. I believe that being single at 30 or 40 or any age is not a good reason to become a second wife. Marriage should be based on love and understanding with the aim of building a home, not breaking another’s,” Hamed said.
“A friend of mine was divorced last year as she did not accept to be called the ‘first wife’ and now she is doing fine with plans to marry her fiance. I think our society exaggerates the (pitiful) condition of single or divorced women, while it should be dealt with as a normal fact of life,” she added.
A 2018 survey by the Sisterhood is Global Institute Jordan indicated that most husbands hide the existence of another marriage from their first wives. The survey, which approached men and women aged 15-49, stated that 4% of women respondents said their husbands had more than one wife but only 1% of men admitted polygamy.
The issue of multiple marriages is a very sensitive subject in the Arab region. Many say the Quran, in that regard, is manipulated and misinterpreted to allow men to have more than one wife. A Saudi female journalist, who asked for fair treatment and sarcastically suggested that women should have multiple husbands in an article in 2009, caused a major uproar and drew condemnation in Muslim countries.