West African Muslims take multiple wives
DAKAR, Senegal—Monday and Tuesday are with Mame Seye. Wednesday and Thursday, it’s Khady. Then, Ibrahima Sene, a successful businessman, welcomes his third lawfully wedded spouse, Aida — perfumed, coiffed and arrayed in her finest — into his bedroom for two nights.
Defying expectations that Western influences and urbanization would gradually do away with plural marriages, polygamy is going strong among Muslims in parts of black West Africa. In Senegal, nearly 47 per cent of marriages are multiple like Sene’s.
“At least I am not chasing up girls, or committing adultery,” says Sene, 60, sitting on the sofa across from the family’s master bed. Two of his wives, flanking him on the couch, nod.
Sene built his house as a bachelor more than three decades ago, keeping in mind his future spouses and Qur’anic dictates: Take no more wives than you can deal with justly.
Today, Sene’s three wives each have separate apartments in the luxurious villa of high ceilings and greyish-white-streaked marble floors.
At night, the wives often gather in their husband’s room to watch TV, before two retire to bed, leaving just one behind.
“Polygamy is in the mind,” Sene says, his wives signalling agreement. “Those who have not experienced it don’t know anything about it, and therefore criticize it.”
In part because of social and economic pressures, plural marriages are maintaining a stronger hold in West Africa than in many Arab states, says Antoine Philippe at the Research Institute for Development in Dakar, Senegal’s seaside capital.
Only 3 per cent of marriages are polygamous in the North African state of Morocco. In Mauritania, a heavily Arab country just across the border from Senegal, the rate is 18 per cent, Philippe says.
Amsatou Sow Sidibe, a law professor and director of the Human Rights Institute at Dakar University, says that in poor countries where men who make good livings are few, polygamy still makes sense to many people.
“For a Senegalese woman, being unmarried is not highly regarded. So they would rather share a husband than remain single,” Sow Sidibe says.
To many Westerners, polygamous marriages are an out-of-date practice to be phased out.
“There are exceptional situations when polygamy should be allowed — in cases where the woman is too old, or ill, or cannot have children,” argues Radwan Masmoudi, executive director of the Maryland-based Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
“I think polygamy should be restricted to those cases, but first the woman should agree, and give her permission,” Masmoudi says.
West Africa has known multiple marriages since the early ages. There were no limits on the number of wives until the 11th century, when Islam was introduced. The prophet Muhammad stipulated a maximum of four wives.
Senegal’s 1973 family code obligates grooms to register their intentions at the time of the first marriage — opting for monogamy, limited polygamy with two wives, or full polygamy.
Khady Ndiaye, a 34-year-old civil engineer, says she never discussed the matter with her husband ahead of their 1996 marriage, assuming the answer was obvious for two educated professionals like themselves.
When they registered their wedding at Dakar’s town hall, a bureaucrat asked the crucial question of her new husband: “Sir, do you opt for polygamy or monogamy?”
His answer: “Polygamy.”
“I felt betrayed and still do,” she says, giving thanks out loud to God that her husband has not yet taken another wife.
In Senegal, taking a second wife after publicly committing to monogamy is punishable by up to three years in prison.
However, women in such situations who lack education and resources generally stick with their husbands, rather then see themselves and their children scramble for a living.
At their villa, Sene and his wives are confident their arrangement is the best for the growth and education of their 17 children — taking place under the close scrutiny and guidance of their father.
“He’s managed to tame all his wives. The man is a warrior,” says Sene’s younger brother, Ndongo Sene.
Multiple marriages don’t always run smoothly.
Take the case of Diatou, a 29-year-old who is a second wife, the junior partner to her husband’s first wife.
“She is mean, and that’s why I am there for my husband,” Diatou says of her rival, to whom she refers only as “witch.”
“Sharing a partner is already extremely tough, so I don’t even want to pretend I like her,” adds Diatou, who agreed to speak about her marriage only if her last name was not used.
Amity also has eluded Sene’s brother, Ndongo, a 62-year-old retired businessman.
He, too, took three wives — one Lebanese, one Spanish, one Senegalese. But offered two nights a week, the Lebanese and Spanish women refused. Rather than thrice-wedded bliss, his household is caught in endless bickering, a failed marriage cubed.
“It’s like a lifetime boxing match,” Ndongo Sene says with a sigh. “Your endurance is tested every single day.”
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