KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Opponents of polygamy in Muslim-majority Malaysia said Thursday they will spearhead a rare survey to prove their claims that the practice throws families into emotional and economic turmoil.
Researchers hope to interview 6,000 members of polygamous households over the next 10 months in what could be the most comprehensive survey ever conducted on polygamy in a Muslim society, said Zainah Anwar, director of Sisters In Islam, a Malaysian women’s rights group.
“We need evidence-based material to strengthen our advocacy for awareness and reforms, rather than merely use stories or assumptions about polygamy,” Zainah told a news conference.
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Islam allows a man up to four wives. But the practice of polygamy has sparked debate in Malaysia, where nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 26 million people are Muslim, because activists say some polygamous husbands neglect their responsibilities to wives and children.
Government statistics recorded 13,516 polygamous marriages between 1995 and 2004, representing 1.4 percent of all Muslim marriages, said Norani Othman, a sociologist at the National University of Malaysia involved in the survey project.
However, activists believe the true number is higher because many men fail to report their second or third marriages in order to keep them a secret from their primary families. There is no official estimate of the total current number of polygamous marriages.
The upcoming survey is significant because existing research on Muslim polygamy in other countries has only scrutinized a small number of respondents and focused on legal issues. As such, there has been a failure to understand the financial and social impact of polygamy, Norani said.
Sisters In Islam’s researchers plan to ask polygamous families a wide range of questions, including how their expenditure for clothes and other necessities is affected when the man marries another wife, and whether existing wives and children are forced to make financial sacrifices.
The survey would cover everyday dilemmas — including how husbands divide their time among multiple wives, celebrate holidays and choose which wife to take to social functions — and would consider whether current laws sufficiently safeguard wives from mistreatment in polygamy cases.
Sisters in Islam are aiming to publish their findings in early 2008.
A pilot study by Sisters in Islam in 2005 involving 40 members of polygamous households revealed that some children suffer emotional problems as a direct consequence of the practice, causing them to take up alcohol and smoking, Norani said.
Activists say the upcoming survey’s results will be submitted to the government to help formulate Muslim family development policies and improve legal protection for wives.
Polygamy is illegal for Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities, who are mainly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.