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Family bill's polygamy clause stirs controversy

Iranian parliament removes article that allowed multiple marriages without consent, but debate still continues across society.

TEHRAN // A move by legislators to make it legally acceptable for a man to take a second, third and fourth wife without asking for permission from his first wife has revived the debate about polygamy in Iran, with many men and women objecting to the practice. "A law that allows it to happen will shake the foundations of many families and destroy many women's lives," Maliheh Tarighat, a 44-year-old housewife, said in Tehran.

The controversial article was removed from a bill this month, as well as one that taxed mahr or sidaq, the mandatory gift a man agrees to give his wife at some point during their marriage, after huge public opposition, including from conservative clerics. "A man may be wealthy enough to support two or even more families, but how about his attention to his wife and children, can he share it between two families and still give them enough?" Mrs Tarighat said.

The polygamy article would have allowed men to take as many as four wives, without permission from his other wives. The only requirement would have been that the man would need to prove they were financially capable of supporting two or more families and that they could treat both or all families in a "just manner". Existing Iranian laws prohibit men from taking another wife without permission from the one he is already married to. The exception is when a man can prove to the court that his wife suffers from infertility, an incurable mental illness or physical disease, is an addict, does not carry out her marital obligations or is jailed.

The Family Support Bill had been presented to parliament more than a year ago, but had not been on its agenda until recently. Women's rights campaigners, including Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Noble Peace laureate, had protested in parliament against the inclusion of the polygamy article in the bill. They also objected to the proposed "gift tax" article, which would have taxed women on any amount over and above "the norm". The ministry of economy would have been invested with the power to decide what the "the norm" was.

Ali Larijani, the conservative parliament speaker, has asked the judicial and legal committee to re-examine and amend the bill. Gholamhossein Elham, a government spokesman, defended the addition of the polygamy article and said it was not meant to encourage men to take more wives, but would have made men register their marriages. The inclusion of the two articles in the bill was seen as an attempt by the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, to revive what is thought to be early Islamic values and traditions and to help solve the problem of decreased rate of marriage.

Even some conservative clerics thought the measures went too far. In a Friday sermon in the holy city of Qom, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini voiced his concern. Such a law could cause women to suspect their husbands. Families are already facing enough problems, and they should not be made to worry more, he said. The bill, now excluding the polygamy and alimony clauses, is intended to replace a range of various existing marriage- and divorce-related laws and establish special courts, with female judges involved for the first time, to deal with these matters.

"Even if a man proved his financial resources enough to support multiple families, how can a court establish that he can also treat them equally and fairly?" said Ali Etemadi, 45, a government employee. "Polygamy is a thing of the past. Trying to revive it in a society that has long considered it shameful is an insult to both men and women.". The bill's articles were an attempt by hardliners to normalise polygamy, said Shahla Ezazi, a professor of sociology and head of women studies at the Iranian Sociological Association. The hardliners have control over the media, and they use it to disseminate their ideology, she said.

"The attempt was best demonstrated by an independent study of women's role in TV serials shown by the state-run television in recent years. In many of these serials the issue of polygamy is addressed, and men with more than one wife are often portrayed favourably," Dr Ezazi said. However, despite the growing lack of social acceptance, some in Iran still see polygamy as acceptable. "I see nothing wrong if a man takes even three or four wives, but if he lacks sufficient financial means to support all, trouble arises," said Mosayyeb Shakouri, a street-side lawyer, who has two families himself.

"I married my first wife 30 years ago and have three children with her. My wife suffers from physical and psychological illnesses, and she consented to my second marriage herself. I married my second wife last year and have a child with her now. I treat both my families fairly and equally so there is no trouble," he said. The bill had also included an article, removed by the government, on the requirement to register any temporary marriages that result in pregnancy to protect the rights of the child.


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