Israel 2008: State of Polygamy

One of every four Beduin families have multiple wives.

beduin women making brea (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
beduin women making brea
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Polygamy is not declining worldwide and, though illegal, it is practiced here by hundreds of families, particularly among Beduin. A wide range of experts presented their research at a first-of-its-kind conference on the subject held on Wednesday at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. In the conference's opening speech, Talal al-Krenawi, mayor of the country's largest Beduin town, Rahat, said the sector faced numerous challenges in dealing with modernity, particularly in family planning and stemming polygamy, in which a man takes multiple wives and fathers many children. "There is cultural pressure in our community to have lots of children, but we must strive to raise awareness to improve family planning," Krenawi said. "Large families conceived without planning end up leading to poverty and other socioeconomic problems." He pointed out that while Islam permitted a man to have up to four wives, this was only on condition that he could treat them equally in both a financial and an emotional sense. "Who is able to treat three wives equally?" joked Krenawi. "[Polygamy] is allowed but even the Prophet Muhammad did not recommend it." According to data presented at the conference, 20 percent to 25% of Israel's Beduin families practice polygamy, and most of the women and children in such families suffer deep psychological, financial and social difficulties. Precise data on Beduin polygamy have never been compiled. The conference's chairman, Ben-Gurion social work professor Alean al-Krenawi - brother of Rahat's mayor - presented the findings of a three-year study comparing polygamous and monogamous Beduin families in Israel. Prof. Krenawi took a sample of 973 subjects, half from polygamous families and the other half from monogamous ones. He questioned fathers, wives and children about their psychological, family and social functioning, as well as the quality of their marriage, father-child and mother-child relationships, and even checked the children's scholastic success. Children from polygamous families reported more distress, depression, anxiety and problems in establishing social relationships than those from monogamous households, the study found. Children from polygamous families also have much lower self-esteem and tend to quarrel with their fathers more. "There is always going to be tension between the women, which ends up creating different camps in the family," Krenawi said. "The father tends to prefer the junior wife and abandons the senior wife and her children." Men in polygamous families are also not generally happy with their situation, mostly due to the constant arguing between wives and children, Krenawi's research found. Many of the men said that in retrospect they would not have chosen to marry multiple wives. Sheikh Hammad Abu Daabis, head of the Islamic Movement's southern branch, spoke out for polygamy, explaining that it was his religion's way of providing a solution to the limitation of Islam's marriage laws. "Polygamy solves problems," Abu Daabis said. "Anxiety and depression are only side effects of the practice, but we must also look at the benefits." He went on to list several key reasons for a man taking additional wives, for example if the first woman falls sick or is infertile, as a way of a man being honest about any sexual betrayals, or as an opportunity for the second wife to find love and marriage, too. While the first wife does not have a say in whether her husband should marry a second wife, the new woman is making a conscious decision to marry an already married man, Abu Daabis said, adding that being a single woman of advanced years in Muslim culture is particularly problematic. Other speakers at the conference included Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, who said that Israeli law had to find provisions for polygamous families so that the children of such families did not end up neglected or at risk and to enable additional wives, who are not recognized by the law, to receive state benefits. American-Lebanese professor of Islamic and Regional Studies Sherifa Zuhur, of the US Army War College, spoke out against polygamy in any culture, country or society, condemning the practice as an obstacle to women's basic human rights. "Social scientists wrongly assume that polygamy is fading away or that only wealthy men engage in the practice," Zuhur told the conference. "These are all myths and are untrue. Today, there are new forms of polygamy that all benefit the men and all hurt women." Most of those attending the conference came from the Beduin sector or from other communities, such as the Black Hebrews in Dimona, who practice or have practiced polygamy in the past. While polygamy is illegal, participants at the conference said the law wasn't enforced and that nobody in Israel had ever been arrested or punished for the practice.