My sister called the other day, and as soon as I picked up the phone and said hello, she blurted out: “I hate my roots!”
I paused for a second. After realizing she was not talking about her hair, but instead about our family, I sighed and replied, “What now?”
Every family has its own drama and dysfunction, but ours have multiplied no thanks to polygamy. It’s not even our father who practices it, though he’s had his own share of infidelities, but that’s another story. It was our late maternal grandfather who had three wives and a dozen children. Even long after he died, the repercussions of his act have continued to haunt the wives, the children and the grandchildren.
The polygamy situation has bothered me since I was a kid, being an overtly shy youngest kid. There were just too many people around us, too many relatives to visit and too many family events. There have been plenty of weddings to go to, as well as childbirths (I still don’t know exactly how many cousins I have) and circumcision, and so on. The Idul Fitri holiday was what I despised (still do) the most, as there were dozens of relatives to say “hi” and answer to, and too many hands poking my arms, tickling me and pinching me on the cheeks.
My outgoing sister had a kick out of having so many aunts, uncles and cousins. Being the Chatty Kathy who constantly craved attentions, she was happy that she could always find an audience. During her pre-teen and teenage years, she had our aunts and uncles, some only slightly older than her, with whom she could share stories and try smoking and drinking.
But as we got old enough to understand the situation, both my sister and I could see how messed up things were and still are. First, the financial issue. My grandfather was not that well off (and yet, he married two other women), resulting in a generation of children with less opportunity to attain higher education.
All the siblings get along pretty well and even slightly look like they are from the same mom and dad, but there were no shortages of resentment and disappointment. And they vied with one another for their father’s attention and affection.
This situation is not unique to my family. An old friend had a grandfather who had four wives, but, unlike my grandfather, he was a very wealthy man. Still the polygamous marriage has brought the same pain regardless of the family’s financial situation.
“My late grandmother was the first wife, and she was an extraordinary patient woman,” my friend told me.
”I salute the way she handled her ‘sister wives’. She treated them with kindness and acted as a big sister toward the other three, so the kids and grandkids showed the same courtesy to the other wives/grandmothers, and they to us. We are like a huge, extended family,” she said.
If it wasn’t for the way her grandmother handled it, it would’ve been a very different situation, she said.
Individually, however, the children had their own struggles. Her uncles generally have low self-esteem and mentally weak, while her aunts are strong-headed and angsty, she said.
“My aunts generally have successful careers, unlike their male siblings. Maybe it’s to compensate for the family’s past; they don’t want to be perceived as weak like their mothers, who were willing to be polygamists,” my friend said.
In our family’s case, my mother, who is the eldest child, is the glue that ties all the children together, especially since the sister wives barely got along. My mother helped raise her siblings and make sure they all are still in contact until now.
But this has also meant that she, and us too, has to be dragged into the drama and problems her younger siblings caused. The women tend to marry the wrong kind of men, and one, alas, carried on the polygamous legacy and became the third wife of a businessman twice her age.
The men are on either extreme – a philanderer or an obedient husband to their dominating wives. And almost none of them have successful careers. One disappeared and abandoned his wife and kids.
It baffles me that polygamy is still even an issue worth of a rational public discussion. It’s nauseating to see politician Anis Matta proudly parading his young, newly wedded second wife with his children from the first wife in tow. And then his colleague Fahri Hamzah came to his defense and wrote about 500 tweets glorifying the marriage, as if it was the century’s greatest romance.
Polygamy can be consensual and the wives often get along fine, at least on the surface, or maybe they are fine because many women are plain masochistic that way. But the impact on the children and grandchildren are not to be taken lightly.
The proponents of polygamy often argue that Islam allows the practice, although they seem to be oblivious that it has nearly impossible requirements to fulfill. They should see other Muslim majority countries that have banned the practice, because the religious authorities in these countries consider it more hazardous than beneficial. Tunisia, which officially adopts the sharia law – although the lawmakers are currently seeking to adopt more secular laws – was the first country in the Arab region to ban polygamy under the 1956 Personal Status Code.
"Men who practice polygamy are committing violence against their wives and children, who consequently feel disappointed, abandoned and lost," said prominent Muslim scholar Musdah Mulia.
Indeed they are. And the scars they left behind are etched on the next generation.
About Dina Mariana
Dina is not the famous child singer of the 1980s (nor can she carry a tune). Making a living as a translator, she loves to bake and dreams of taking a baking course in Paris and opening a petite patisserie one day.