The Kelantan government’s latest proposals regarding polygamy are disturbing in many ways.
Mumtaz Md Nawi, who chairs the Kelantan Family Development, Welfare and the People’s Wellbeing Committee, has told us the state would simplify the process of marriage for both single and married men.
“This is to encourage the birth of more Muslim children,” she said, adding that the state would help men who would like more children to marry second, third or fourth wives.
It is a sad day when a woman agrees to treat other women as breeding machines, wives as commodities and children as bulk purchases.
Mumtaz also said the state would provide comprehensive information and counselling to “guarantee that the children from these marriage will turn out to be good Muslims”.
Whether she intended it or not, she was admitting that the PAS government, which has ruled Kelantan since 1990, had failed to impart religious teachings to citizens. Indeed, some reports say Kelantan has the highest rate of drug taking, illicit sex and HIV infection among Malaysian states.
Encouraging men to marry in Kelantan instead of doing so in southern Thailand does not solve the problem of illegal marriages.
If the authorities want to reduce the rate of divorce among Muslims and thereby the number of single mothers in the state, they should start teaching children, especially boys, the importance of strong and lasting relationships and treating women with respect. Respect is not about obedience, which is being promoted in some official “marriage courses” conducted for Muslims.
In addition, the authorities should be careful when mouthing cliches like “children are a gift from God” without adequately explaining what they mean. They might alienate single mothers struggling to put food on the table. Some may not think their pitiful existence is a gift from God, at least not when they see children from smaller families enjoying the good life while theirs don’t even have father figures to look up to.
These children may find their father figures in gangs like Tiga Line or Geng 43.
When a couple elopes to Thailand, it’s usually because the man’s first wife has refused him permission to take another wife. In one case, the young bride thought that the clandestine trip across the border was romantically exciting. Two years and one child later, she was dumped. She receives neither alimony nor child maintenance.
Some divorced women eventually give up the struggle to get their dues in alimony and child support. They say their suffering is made worse by the foot-dragging of the shariah courts.
One woman found out, a few years after her own secret marriage in Thailand, that her husband had repeated the process to marry a third wife. She considers herself fortunate to be financially independent. She says her husband spends all his time with his new wife and does not help with the upkeep of her children.
Will Kelantan teach all polygamous men to treat their wives equally? Some men with four wives don’t even have the funds to take care of themselves adequately. God knows how they take care of their families.
We have said that the main reason for eloping to Thailand is the first wife’s refusal to permit her husband to marry again. When the newly married couple returns to Malaysia, all they have to do to validate the marriage is pay a small fine. To tackle this problem, the proposed new initiatives by the Kelantan government will probably include a clause that takes away the need for the first wife’s permission. If that is so, all we can say is woe to the women of Kelantan.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.