While accurate figures are hard to find, one thing is certain: The country is undergoing a marriage crisis, described by some as a ticking social time bomb. Not only are divorce rates alarmingly high (reaching more than 60% in cities in 2017, according to the national statistics agency) but the number of unmarried women is also soaring. In October, the figure hit 11 million — an estimated 50% of women of marriageable age.
The current circumstances have emboldened polygamy proponents, whose voices have grown louder in recent months. They justify the controversial practice on grounds that it gives women a “better chance of avoiding spinsterhood” and makes it easier for them to “exercise their right to have a husband.” They also argue that having more than one wife allows men a “sensible way to assuage male sexual frustration, a common cause of divorce.”
Pro-polygamy campaigner Rania Hashem, who has written the book “Polygamy: A Religious Right,” says, “Women have no right to object to their husbands’ taking multiple wives as they cannot forbid what God has sanctioned in the Quran.”
Hashem appears frequently on television and organizes seminars that advocate polygamy. “By acquiescing in your husband’s decision to take other wives, you are in fact abiding by the rules of Islam,” she tells women. Basing her argument on what she calls “the sex-ratio imbalance,” she says there are millions of women who are unmarried because of the shortage in men in Egypt. “Polygamy is key to resolving this and other social problems.”
However, many say that no such imbalance exists, and that the high rates of unmarried women cannot be blamed on the lack of men.
Women’s rights advocates believe other factors such as social and economic conditions are behind the phenomenon of unmarried women. Iman Bibars, CEO of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, told Al-Monitor, “Young men that are at an early stage of their careers very often cannot afford the exorbitant costs of marriage, which include buying a home and furnishing it, the bride price, etc. The demands made by the bride’s family — even in poor families — are often high, rendering it almost impossible for the average young man to fulfill those demands. Usually, it’s older men who are already well-established who can afford to pay for all those things. Most of them are already married but are seeking younger brides.”
Mona Abu Shanab, a TV producer and another polygamy advocate, has tried to win converts to her cause from across the Arab world. She recently launched a verbal attack on Tunisia for what she called its “colonialist family laws” outlawing polygamy.
“There are millions of unmarried women, widows and divorcees in Tunisia, where do they all go?” she said in a viral video posted on her Facebook page in October. Abu Shanab called on God-fearing Tunisians to reject the country’s anti-polygamy law, which, she said, “encourages men to commit adultery.”
The Quran states that men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time, provided that the husband can treat all four equally. It adds that if the husband feels he might not be able to treat all with equal fairness, then to marry only one.