Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 3 March 2004
Issue No. 679
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Polygamous duplicity

Stricter personal status laws do not seem to have curbed polygamy in Egypt. Reem Leila looks at the loopholes

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Drawing by george Bahgory

Recent statistics provided by the National Centre for Sociological and Criminological Research (NCSCR) show that within three years of a marriage, nearly 25 per cent of Egyptian husbands take on a second wife and 70 per cent of these second marriages end in divorce.

"I love my kids and respect my wife but I do not love her. Ours was an arranged marriage," explained Mohamed Ahmed, a man who has recently taken on a second wife behind his first wife's back. "I married a second wife in order to have the opportunity to enjoy the love, emotions and feelings I never had with my first wife," he added.

The catch in this arrangement is that in accordance to Law 1/2000, popularly known as the Khul' Law, a man is obliged to inform his first wife if he plans to marry a second woman. According to this law, if the first wife objects to her husband remarrying, she has the right to ask for a divorce within one year of learning of the second marriage's existence. This stipulation relieved women of the burden of proving that their rights had been violated as a result of a second marriage, and today a woman is granted a divorce almost automatically if she objects to an additional wife.

To sidestep the Khul' Law, Ahmed married his second wife using his personal identification card -- as opposed to his family one -- which does not indicate whether he is married or not.

According to Ashraf Zaki, a personal status lawyer, "The current law dictates that if a man does not inform the ma'zoun (the marriage registrar) that he is married while taking on a second wife, he is exposing himself to a one year prison sentence. If the ma'zoun does not inform the first wife that her husband is marrying again, he is to be imprisoned for a period ranging from six months to one year."

However, it seems the law is not a sufficient deterrent for some polygamists. "Many men with the help of the ma'zoun and lawyers have challenged this law on the grounds that it restricted a man's right under Islamic Shari'a to keep more than one wife without informing the first one," says Zaki.

Hosny El-Gazairy, a ma'zoun, argues that it is not always the ma'zoun 's fault when the first wife is not informed of remarriage. "The husband in most cases remarries with his personal ID and the ma'zoun has no way of knowing whether he already has a wife or not. Or sometimes the husband dictates to the ma'zoun a fake address for the first wife, so when the ma'zoun sends the notice to the wife she never receives it," says El-Gazairy.

Ayman Shafeeq, an agricultural engineer, is planning to take a second wife within a couple of months. Shafeeq has bribed the ma'zoun not to inform his first wife. "This cost me LE700 on top of the ma'zoun 's normal fees. I don't care though. All I really care about is that my first wife doesn't find out."

Ahmed Afifi, a businessman, is in love and does not know how to go about marrying his lover without his wife finding out. "For the kids' sake, I don't want to go through a divorce. I think the only way to get around this problem is to marry the person I love via an urfi contract," said Afifi. In this controversial type of marriage, the husband and wife simply sign a legal contract without registering with the appropriate authorities.

Al-Ahram Weekly talked to several ma'zouns in the Al-Hussein district, the centre of the ma'zoun business in Cairo, and was able to find one who was willing to talk candidly on condition of anonymity. "There are many ma'zouns who help men take a second wife in return for a certain amount of money. Depending on the financial status of the groom, the fees could range from LE500 to LE3,000 and sometimes even more," he told the Weekly.

According to Abdel-Hady Ghozzy, a prominent personal status lawyer, with the help of a ma'zoun and a lawyer the husband can easily remarry without informing his first wife, and spare himself and the ma'zoun the legal consequences of not informing the wife. "In a case where the wife and husband are living with in-laws the husband can rent another apartment three months prior to his second marriage to prove the second address as a place of residence. Then he can give the ma'zoun his address without having to lie. By doing this he will avoid the penalty of giving false information to the ma'zoun, and the ma'zoun will not be aware of what is going on," he explained.

Ghozzy went out to list the options for deceit when the wife is living with the husband. "He can bribe the ma'zoun, who will split the money with the postman to make sure the wife's notice never arrives. By doing this the husband is not legally liable. Also, the husband can make sure that someone other than the wife receives the notice or undertake the second marriage while she is away so that he can pick up the notice before she returns and again he is not legally liable."

According to the new law the ma'zoun is obliged to send the letter of notification within seven days of the marriage via registered letter. The postman takes a registered letter to the address three times and if he does not find anyone he returns it to the sender. "So if the first wife does not receive the letter within these days she never has to know and the husband is safe and sound. All he has to do is be careful and do his best to hide his second marriage from the first wife," said Ghozzy.

Some husbands are planning to do exactly that. "Under no circumstances am I going to abandon either of my wives. Each of them plays an important part in my life," said Ahmed.

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