Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Malaysian Polygamy Club Draws Criticism

“Usually they marry late, they do a second or third degree, they put off marriage until later and they find it difficult to find an unmarried man,” she said. “One of them said ‘all the good men are either married or gay.”’



Palani Mohan for The International Herald Tribune

Mohamad Ikram Ashaari and his four wives and children at his home in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR — Rohaya Mohamad, 44, is an articulate, bespectacled medical doctor who studied at a university in Wales. Juhaidah Yusof, 41, is a shy Islamic studies teacher and mother of eight. Kartini Maarof, 41, is a divorce lawyer and Rubaizah Rejab, a youthful-looking 30-year-old woman, teaches Arabic at a private college.

The lives of these four women are closely entwined — they take care of each others’ children, cook for each other and share a home on weekends.

They also share a husband.

The man at the center of this matrimonial arrangement is Mohamad Ikram Ashaari, the 43-year-old stepson of Hatijah Aam, 54, a Malaysian woman who in August established a club to promote polygamy.

“Men are by nature polygamous,” said Dr. Rohaya, Mr. Ikram’s third wife, flanked by the other three women and Mr. Ikram for an interview on a recent morning. The women were dressed in ankle-length skirts, their hair covered by tudungs, the Malaysian term for headscarf. “We hear of many men having the ‘other woman,’ affairs and prostitution because for men, one woman is not enough. Polygamy is a way to overcome social ills such as this.”

The Ikhwan Polygamy Club is managed by Global Ikhwan, a company whose businesses include bread and noodle factories, a chicken-processing plant, pharmacies, cafes and supermarkets. Mr. Ikram is a director of the company.

While polygamy is legal in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the club has come under fire from the government and religious leaders, who suspect it may be an attempt to revive Al-Arqam, a defunct Islamic movement headed by Mrs. Hatijah’s husband, Mr. Ashaari Mohamad, who is the founder and owner of Global Ikhwan. Al-Arqam was banned in 1994 for “deviant” religious teachings.

The club denies allegations that it is trying to revive Al-Arqam, and says that the aim of the club is to help single mothers and women past “marrying age” find husbands.

The Ikhwan Polygamy Club says it has 1,000 members across Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe. It recently started a branch in Bandung, Indonesia, and plans to open another one in Jakarta. Most of the members are employees of Global Ikwan or former members of Al-Arqam.

Members get together regularly for meetings and relationship counseling, which is given by senior members of the group.

Under Malaysian law, it is legal for Muslim men to marry as many as four wives, although they must obtain permission from an Islamic, or shariah, court to marry more than one. Women’s groups say it has become easier for men to obtain permission to take multiple wives in recent years, a development they say coincides with a rise in Islamic conservatism in Malaysia.

While some states require men to obtain the consent of their existing wives before seeking court permission to marry another wife, Sa’adiah Din, a family lawyer who practices in the shariah courts, said other states no longer required the wives’ consent.

In 2008, 1,791 men applied to the shariah courts, which apply only to the country’s Muslim population, for permission to take another wife, up from 1,694 in 2007. The government could not provide figures on the total number of polygamous marriages, but researchers including Norani Othman, a sociologist at the National University of Malaysia, said the number could be as high as 5 percent of all marriages.

Despite the growing number of polygamous marriages, the club’s effort to promote the practice has put it in the sights of the authorities.

The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, a government department that is responsible for the promotion and administration of Islam, is investigating the activities of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club and says it believes Mr. Ashaari and his family may be promoting teachings contrary to Islam. A spokeswoman would not provide further details, saying the investigation was continuing.

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