We all know male polygamy is legal. We also know it is a controversial issue. However, beyond all the debate and stereotypical judgments, we wondered what goes on in a man's head to prompt him to take a second wife... So we went ahead and asked one.
The air is humid on this summer night at the top of Cairo’s Moqattam hill, where Ashraf* relaxingly sits while sipping a juice made of lemon and mint. Charismatic and outgoing, he seems carefree. But he assures he has “been around.”
“I have done a lot of things, been around with a lot of girls,” says the 33-years-old man. “But when I decided to get married six years ago, I wanted someone who knew how to grow a family, raise children and be strong to keep the family together. I wanted someone I can trust, so I married someone with a good upbringing." But shortly after the wedding, Ashraf felt dissatisfied. “At the end of the day, you end up with someone who is good and would do anything to make you happy, but feeling as if something was missing. I couldn’t find comfort,” he explains. Disappointed and tired, Ashraf would come back from work every day and find himself immersed in a series of draining quarrels with his wife. Until he ran into Mona*.
A woman who made his blood run; a woman who would bring about feelings he had never expected experiencing again, Mona was to Ashraf the dreamlike figure of a potential perfect wife. Having met her as a neighbour, they had been engaged before his first marriage, but as things hadn’t worked out they had fallen apart. Now, as they coincidentally met on an unexpected night, it was time for a second chance.
After secretly getting married, Ashraf ravelled in his new relationship, unnoticed to his first wife Sara*, who would go on with her life as she focused on their two little daughters. “I really don’t know how she didn’t find out; maybe she was too confident, but I decided not to tell her to keep away from a hassle that wasn’t necessary,” he says. But when Mona got pregnant six months later, he decided it was time to tell his first wife. “I couldn’t hide the truth from my first wife anymore, I had to confront her.”
At first, Sara did not believe her ears. She was offended, she felt insulted, but she knew her options were clear: “I explained to her that my problem was emotional. So I gave her options: she could either ask for a divorce; or stay at home with our kids and be financially taken care of; or wait until my second wife gives birth and see what might happen next,” he explains. Sara accepted the second one and, despite she despised the woman who had secretly seduced her husband, learned to live with the new reality of her family life: Ashraf would spend Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with her, and she would not see him on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Tuesday was a complicated day: half of it would be spent in Mona’s house, while the rest of the hours would see him coming back home.
“I didn’t want to divorce her because she accepted the fact that I got married to another woman, although that is an unpleasant reality for 90% of women. So the fact that she accepted that proved her love and will definitely make me stay with her,” he says.
However, after Mona had her second child, their relationship began to deteriorate too. “Usually, there’s a common issue: either you find a someone who truly loves you in all aspects and would endure anything for you, or you marry a woman you love so much, who becomes very spoilt,” he says. And that is exactly what happened with Mona, he assures.
“I married her because I did love her, and she was supposed to love me as well,” he says. “But she would always think she was on top of everything, because she had the feeling that she was giving me what the first wife failed to give me; whether it was pleasure or a male son,” he recalls. So after failing to overcome difficulties and avoid quarrels, he divorced his second wife.
But Mona had not been his first secret affair. During the turbulent first years of his marriage, Ashraf had had an affair in the very own heart of his home, finding a moment whenever Sara went to her mother’s house after a quarrel. “It all started as affair, she used to come to my apartment while my wife was away. But I decided to change this affair and get secretly married through the Orfi marriage (a legal contract where the State is not involved) because I wanted it to be halal." Sara never found out. “There’s no law saying that I should with informing her sooner or later, and it wouldn’t make a big difference,” he says.
A strong believer though not strictly practicing the rituals of Islam, such as praying five times a day, Ashraf says he found in polygamy a way to struggle with the frustration of a failed marriage. “Some people here are very strict when it comes to marriage and say I should have gotten her approval first. All I can say is that we are all different and everyone can deal with it in several ways; some men don’t accept for their wives to wear sleeveless clothes, while they stare at women in the streets who wear those clothes. My point is, nobody practices what they preach.”
Slowly, as the traumas of his second marriage began to fade away, Ashraf began to find in his first wife’s company, the home he was searching for outside. “Now I can see all my wife has done for me. She’s always next to me and whenever I need help, and I always find her support. I discovered new things with her that I didn’t notice before and I started to appreciate these things. There’s always a difference between that who loves you and that whom you love. I don’t know if I would marry another woman; what I’m sure of is that I won’t ever give up on her. I wouldn’t go through the same experience again,” he says.
Ashraf story mirrors that of 25% of Egyptian husbands who, according to statistics provided by the National Centre for Sociological and Criminological Research (NCSCR), take on a second wife within three years of their marriage. 70% of those second marriages end in divorce.
Infidelity and cultural standards
“What is the difference between taking many wives or having one, but keeping a romance on the side?,” he asks. “People think differently; to me, what really matters are the emotions. When I am with someone, I want to feel that I’m talking to her openly, and honestly. I want to be able to tell her anything, as I consider her always my mother, my sister, and everything, while there are some people who only care about the sexual encounters,” he says as he explains his decision to explore marriage with other women.
Today, Ashraf doesn’t have to split his week in half to spend equal time, and spends most of his days with his first wife, while he financially supports the two children he left behind in his second marriage. But his vision of things has changed, he says. “Here, society put a lot of psychological pressure on women who don’t have the luxuries some women outside of Egypt have. And sometimes all they want is to hear a simple nice word after an exhausting day of work,” he says. “But men are also under a huge workload and the pressure of taking care of expenses with a low income; and sometimes he doesn’t even have the energy even for a sexual encounter without taking the pill (referring to Viagra). Women want to feel that they are married to a Romeo, who says nice things even in the hardest times, but that is something very difficult to carry out.”
The lights are dim as some cats play around the plastic tables lining up on the vertiginous precipice that overlooks the city of minarets. Ashraf pauses to put his thoughts into words. “God said in his holy book that the punishment for adultery is 80 lashes for both and stoning while they are alive; let’s say that you’re unhappy with your wife for any reason; God has allowed to have a second, third or fourth wife with only one condition: to be fair and equal with all of them,” he says.
"In other countries, is it consider a sin when someone has sexual intercourse outside of marriage? They may not marry many wives, but they may have lovers.”
* In order to protect the interviewees’ privacy, all names have been changed.