The Rising Womxn Zine

Empower, Educate & Celebrate

Powered by Blogger.

Thursday, 6 August 2020


@ The Rising Womxn Zine

Written by Emily Stephens (she/her) for The Rising Womxn Zine

Across the UK, women are increasingly being pressured into polygamous relationships or left without child support when relationships end as UK laws do not offer enough protection to spouses in religious marriages. There is a concerning level of growth in the number of men ‘marrying’ women in religious ceremonies but refusing to legally register the unions, and therefore allows them to avoid any financial and marital duties owed to a spouse. 


Many women have no other option but to go through religious courts, which often make rulings that force them to remain with their partners even when they are unhappy or rule them unable to claim finance or property from their de facto husbands after marriages dissolve. These institutions are often misogynistic, patriarchal and anti-democratic with little room for women’s rights. 


Polygamy is the act of marrying multiple spouses, meaning one will have more than one husband or wife at the same time. In most countries, polygamy is now illegal, or is at least not officially recognised. 


Polygamy is a taboo topic, mostly ignored by our society for its inconvenience. Thousands of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women find themselves entering polygamous marriages through religious ceremonies called a ‘Nikah’ in the UK. This usually goes on in Muslim communities and is not registered nor recognised by the state. Polygamy is a growing and widespread issue, that not only happens in the Muslim community, but also impacts Hindu and Sikh women too. 


The Middle Eastern Women and Society Organization (MEWSo) supports women from Middle Eastern, North African and Asian backgrounds living in Central, North and West London who face multiple disadvantages, from structural poverty and health inequalities to gender-based violence and immigration status. According to MEWSo, women they have supported in the past have said they were unaware that they were entering a polygamous marriage until it was too late. Some felt they simply had no choice in the matter, while others felt pressured by their families to accept the situation rather than face the stigma of divorce within their communities.


Polygamy happens among the most hard-to-reach women within isolated communities. Understandably, most of these women living in the UK find it difficult and shameful to talk about. They lead incredibly secret lives making it a practise particularly difficult to detect.


We caught up with the founder and Executive Director, Halaleh Taheri (she/her) to discuss MEWSo’s recent campaign, Polygamy Matters. 


Halaleh Taheri is a freedom fighter of the 1979 revolution in Iran; a resilient woman who lost 9 beloved members of her family, including her young husband. ‘I’ve witnessed the loss of friends and innocent people caught in a brutal battle between the Kurdish and Islamic republic, between the young generations and Islamic politics (which at the time of Khomeini ruled Iran including Kurdistan), between a male dominated culture and liberated female thinkers in our society fighting for equality and liberation. It is in my blood to stand up for justice, for equality, for a better life for myself and the people around me, despite their nation, race, beliefs, gender, or sexuality.’


MEWSo was established in 2010 because Taheri was, and still is, passionate to see women from her community thriveShe said, ‘Throughout the past ten years, we’ve met women who had survived - or were still experiencing - different forms of domestic violence – from emotional and financial abuse to physical and sexual violence.’ While in most cases the perpetrators were the women’s spouses or partners, there was a cohort of women who turned to MEWSo for support with issues around forced marriages, forced genital mutilation, forced virginity testing or even hymenoplasty and virginity repair. ‘We managed to enhance our support for women who had found themselves in polygamous relationships by mitigating factors preventing them from escaping polygamy. We also supported women threatened by family members with honour killings or excluded by their communities because of their sexual orientation.’


My past experiences of horror, violence, and brutality in my society, travelling around three continents to find a better and safer place to live, living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and tackling the sorrows of violation, drive me to do something. I don’t want my women to go through all this pain, while there is help and hope for an easier way to reach a better life. I have recovered and I am still recovering. I want to give these women a chance to recover.’ 


It is difficult to establish accurate numbers of polygamous marriages in the UK. There are an estimated 20,000 cases each year. Taheri said, Research carried out by the University of Greenwich confirms what numerous studies have argued, for example, that polygamy can have a negative emotional and financial effect on women and children.' There are many reasons why some women choose to be in a polygamous relationship, some examples include women feeling shamed by their community for not being married or being so isolated that they feel this is their only option in order to fill that gap. However, other times women feel powerless to prevent polygamy or are forced to accept it as part of their culture and/or religion. 


Polygamy happens among the hardest to reach women within isolated communities. Understandably, most women living in the UK who are involved in polygamous relationships find it difficult and shameful to speak about this taboo subject. Taheri said, ‘women in polygamous relationships lead almost secret lives. In some cases, a woman may marry a man whom she and her family and friends believe to be single. However, it turns out that the man has another wife and children in a different area of the city or country. Therefore, the arrangement can be kept secret quite easily from close relatives making polygamy so hard to detect. We can sometimes only suspect that a woman is suffering in a polygamous relationship which is why there needs to be more dialogue to address the issue.’


In order for any marriage to be recognised as legally valid in the UK, the marriage must be monogamous (one partner) and carried out in accordance with legislation. For a polygamous marriage to be considered valid in the UK, the parties must be based in a country where polygamous marriage is permitted and must have entered into the marriage in a country, which permits polygamy.


A large portion of these women in the UK do not realise they are entering into a polygamous marriage or they don't feel they have a choice. Taheri told us, ‘most or all polygamous marriages that take place in the UK are done through the niqha ceremony, which, unbeknown to many Muslim women, isn't recognised under UK law. Therefore, if the marriage breaks down, the woman isn't protected by the law in the same way as a civil monogamous married couple is. In addition, with the roll out of Universal Credit, women in polygamous marriages are much more vulnerable to financial abuse.’ 


MEWSo has been involved in specific activities related to polygamy since 2017, ranging from participating in a workshop at University of Greenwich in December 2017 to a series of Digital Storytelling workshops to identify polygamy-related issues facing women in the UK. They also network with different agencies to inform and receive referrals and cases of women in polygamous relationships. Most recently, MEWSo has been awarded a small grant from Rosa Foundation to kick-start the Polygamy Matters Campaign in order to build up their online presence and raise awareness. 


Taheri said, ‘Most of our clients in polygamous relationships have been identified through our counselling, mindfulness, storytelling classes, and advice sessions in the last 3 years. Since then we have identified 42 individual cases of women who are in polygamous relationships (64% of whom were of Asian background) and have encountered 80 others who we suspect to be in polygamous relationships but are unable or not yet ready to ask for help.’


On the other hand, some will insist that there are benefits for a woman engaged in a polygamous relationship. Taheri told us, ‘In the west, where you have a choice, you are accountable for your benefits, finances, work and career, your children. You are valued as an equal human being by the law of the country, respected by the community in which you live. If you have the same rights for living and making decisions as men, it will be very rare and unusual for a woman to enter a polygamous relationship. But if you are in a society that forces decisions on you, makes you dependent on the community while stripping you of all autonomy, then it becomes a different story entirely. For this reason, polygamy is often seen as "a way out" of an undesirable situation. A marriage to a man might be a way out of an abusive or controlling home. A marriage means that you have avoided bringing your family shame by being branded as undesirable. A marriage might give you a leg to stand on within your community. Sometimes, being the second wife gives you the illusion of control over your own life, even if that’s not legally the case.’ 


 In order to try and make women aware of all different aspects of polygamous marriages, Taheri said, ‘All we can do is immerse these women within the world around them, raising awareness about their rights, aiming to empower them and improve their self-esteem. By doing this, we hope that one day, these women will reach equality through their own choices and decisions, striving towards the better life they deserve.’


The Polygamy Matters campaign aims to enforce the existing law, so women and girls have access to full protection by the state. Awareness and prevention services must be available for women and girls, so they are aware of the consequences of entering a polygamous relationship. Advice and support services must be existing and accessible for women and girls so they can reach for support when they feel unsafe. Taheri told us, ‘I am aware that this kind of injustice and harmful customs are only happening in certain communities and not in the whole society. If you look at Female Genital Mutilation, it is the same. It is happening in certain communities, but it still falls upon the responsibility of the UK Government to ban it and whoever carries out such a brutal crime will be punished by the Law. That is exactly what we want: to encourage decision makers and politicians to view polygamy as a human rights issue, and to treat it as such.’


MEWSo also want the educational institutions to recognise the matter as a human rights violation so children are aware of the practice. The campaign will improve the lives of women and mothers caught in polygamous relationships. ‘As a frontline organisation MEWSo are honoured to be part of this big change by educating adults in the community, especially women to be able to protect themselves and young ones in the family. However, educational departments must take these issues seriously as a part of the school curriculum for children.’


Life after Coronavirus looks very uncertain and often times troubling. The pandemic all over the world has pushed societies towards more poverty and starvation. There is also a suspected rise in femicide, domestic violence and gender-based crimes as a direct result of imposed lockdowns across the globe.



As the pandemic has exposed the cracks within our system, which has attacked developers, workers, health and benefit systems, and other front-line service providers, showing society’s favouritism of businesses over regular people, life after COVID-19 could be dangerous for everyone but most of all for vulnerable people in society, both financially and physically. 


Taheri told us, ‘In the UK we need to be alarmed and prepared to face similar situations with our welfare and health system also suffering under pressure. We have already seen the rise of domestic violence, crime, poor mental health, discrimination, unemployment and poverty here at home. Among them, domestic abuse against women and children are rising dramatically and we are all, from the top of the hierarchy down to every individual in society, are responsible to break the cycle of abuse and act fast. Any excuses under any circumstances or custom’s rules are not acceptable!’


To find out more about the work that MEWSo does, you can visit 

No comments

Post a Comment