Islam’s most holy book, the Koran, says that its male adherents may marry up to four women if they wish. The Koran says that a Muslim can take that many brides but that if he does, he must be certain of being able “deal justly” with all of them.
Iraq’s personal status law of 1959 makes allowances for polygyny in the country; after all, previous to this law, personal status cases – that is births, marriages, divorces and so forth – were decided by Islamic, or Sharia, law. So the legislation followed that example, saying that if a man can prove that there is some lawful benefit to taking another wife and that he can afford to provide for both wives, then a judge may grant him permission to take two wives. But the would-be husband must get judicial permission. If he does not, there are penalties that include imprisonment and fines.
In 2008 though, politicians in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan made some amendments to the Iraqi personal status law. The northern region has its own borders, military, court system and parliament.
Under the amendments, a man in Iraqi Kurdistan can’t marry again unless there are exceptional reasons for this – say, for example, his first wife is unable to have children. And even if those circumstances exist, the husband must also seek the permission of his first wife if he wants a second wife. On top of that, the same conditions as those specified in Iraq – the husband must be fair to, and able to provide for, both wives – also exist in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Punishments for not abiding by these conditions include jail sentences of between six and 12 months and a fine of IQD10 million (about US$8,600).
And while women’s rights activists were happy about the 2008 amendments and believe that they have made a big difference to the practice of polygyny in the three major parts of Iraqi Kurdistan –Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk - they also say that there are a number of important loopholes that still need to be closed.
Because there are still a lot of local men who go to other parts of Iraq to marry second wives – there, the Sharia-based personal status law from 1959 is still in effect. The closest areas where husbands can do this are the city of Kirkuk, the Makhmour area in the neighbouring province of Ninawa and Khanqin in the Diyala province. These are all areas with a big Iraqi Kurdish presence.
According to the latest estimates, about 450 men from Iraqi Kurdistan married second wives in Kirkuk last year and about 150 went to Makhmour to do the same. Other unofficial numbers suggest that in total, about 1,150 men came from Iraqi Kurdistan over the past two years to enter into a second marriage.
“The law cannot prevent men who want to marry again from doing so,” boasts one Iraqi Kurdish man who wished to be known as Khader Ali. He said he had tried to convince his wife to give him permission to take a second bride but she wouldn’t. “So I went to the court in Kirkuk to get permission and I married again in August last year. Now my first wife can’t complain – it’s legal. And she won’t complain for social reasons,” he added.
Women’s rights activists say that the local authorities are not doing enough to enforce the region’s own law.
“Despite pressure from lawyers and civil society activists, these kinds of second marriage contracts are still being concluded,” noted one attorney at Kirkuk’s General Court, Hazar Kakaua. “The laws in this area make it easy for Iraqi Kurdish men to come here and do this – even though we would like to see the practice stopped.”
NIQASH contacted the court in Kirkuk but they had no comment on the matter. Local activists believe polygyny is a matter of women’s rights – as one economics professor put it in an online debate hosted by the New York Times: “under polygyny, markets for wives are sellers\' markets, where men can participate multiple times but women can only do so once at a time”.
Local activists also think that the possibility for local men to marry a second time in Kirkuk, makes a mockery of Iraqi Kurdistan’s own laws.
Saroud Mohammed heads the Kirkuk branch of the Iraqi-wide human rights group. Al Amal, and he says that the association is working with authorities in Kirkuk and Baghdad to try and amend the personal status law to protect women.
Other groups believe the best way to prevent polygyny would include passing one personal status law for the whole country and launching an educational campaign.
Some also worry that a man who is trying to convince a first wife to allow him to take a second, could make life very difficult for the first bride if she doesn’t agree with him.
But of course, there is also the other side of the story – there are a variety of arguments for polygyny that some say are still valid. When the practice began, historians say this was actually an improvement for Muslim women – previous to the Koran limiting polygyny to four wives, a man had been able to take as marry as many women as he wanted; this ruling in the Koran actually prevented that and limited him to only four wives.
Today advocates of polygyny say that it creates a kind of extended family and prevents divorce and extramarital affairs. It also gives older women and widows the chance to marry in a society that can be notoriously short of potential husbands, due to previous conflicts and a high death toll for Iraqi males.
And it works as a form of social welfare in a conservative society where women are not generally able to work or live independently – a husband can marry his deceased brother’s wife, for example.
Some locals believe that Iraqi Kurdish society is not ready to move away from Islamic law.
Kirkuk resident, Thuraya, is an example of one of these women. The 34-year-old married 41-year-old Mawloud Abbas two months ago – 34 is relatively old to marry in Iraq. Abbas is from Sulaymaniyah and the couple met while at one of the community colleges.
“Mawloud wanted to have the marriage contract signed in Sulaymaniyah but the court asked him to prove that his first wife agreed to our marriage too,” Thuraya explained to NIQASH. “That’s why we had to get married in Kirkuk instead.”
Mawloud’s wife has since threatened divorce; she’s also threatened to take legal action against Thuraya. “But the local court can’t do anything,” Thuraya says. “I have an official marriage certificate.”