x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Matchmaker says polygamy is solution to spinsterhood

The high cost of dowries means many Jordanian women refrain from marriage, but an entrepreneur insists that wedded bliss is within their reach.

The Jordanian matchmaker Jaser al Ghanem with  one of his wives at their home in Sahab, south of Amman.
The Jordanian matchmaker Jaser al Ghanem with one of his wives at their home in Sahab, south of Amman.

AMMAN // For Jaser al Ghanem, three wives are just not enough. He had four up until a few months ago when one of his wives insisted on a divorce, leaving him one short of the maximum number permitted in Islam - and now Mr al Ghanem, a matchmaker in his spare time, is looking for another. Indeed, he has been promoting polygamy for the past 17 years, believing it beneficial to Jordanian society, where many women have remained single as a result of the high cost of marriage, and now he is hoping to make a living out of it. "The reason women are not getting married is not because they abstain from marriage, but it is because the dowries are high," said Mr al Ghanem, 44. "Stability is important, and marriage is a religious obligation. "The ultimate purpose is to benefit society. It is not for the man because he will endure the financial burden, and will end up having more responsibilities," he said. "But it is to provide protection for single women who are divorced, spinsters and widows." In 1992, Mr al Ghanem established a volunteer group for the facilitation of polygamous marriages called the Rabitat al Fadeela, or Virtue League. At their gatherings he beseeches those in attendance with sayings and examples from the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, who took several wives, trying to persuade them that polygamy is the fulfilment of a religious duty. By day Mr al Ghanem works as a secretary at a medical clinic in Amman and also trades in agricultural land to support his three wives and the 18 children he has had with them and his former wife. But he is hoping to make polygamous matchmaking a profitable business. This year he began charging US$30 (Dh110) in application fees for men looking for additional wives. And while his society is not officially registered and does not have an office, he is trying to obtain a licence to operate out of a new building in eastern Amman that includes private suites with swimming pools for conservative religious couples to spend their honeymoons. So far in his career, Mr al Ghanem has married off 217 men. Many of them, he said, when filling out their application will note what "qualities" they are looking for in a prospective additional wife. "Most men ask that a woman's height be between 155cm and 170cm, and they want her to have a fair complexion and to be young," Mr al Ghanem said. "But I am against such conditions because I am looking to marry off women who have become spinsters. And I cannot promote something unless I have tried it myself. Three of my wives were spinsters when I married them and they are even not that pretty." Polygamy is not uncommon in Jordan; according to sociologists the practice is prevalent among nomadic communities and the less educated, poorer segments of society. In 2007, a government survey found that 4.5 per cent of married women lived in a polygamous marriage, though that had declined from nearly seven per cent in 2002. In the desert regions the percentage stood as high as 13 per cent in 2007 compared with four per cent in other areas of the kingdom. Among women aged 40 to 49, there was a higher rate of polygamy - eight per cent - compared to two per cent for those 15 to 24. "Polygamy exists at all levels of society, but the prevalence declines among those with higher incomes and the better educated," said Musa Shtewi, the director of the Jordan Centre for Social Research. In Jordan, a wife cannot legally prevent her husband from taking an additional wife, but she can use it as justification to file for divorce. Critics say people like Mr al Ghanem are merely using polygamy as a cheap way to make money. "The fact that polygamy is sanctioned by religion does not mean it is a duty," said Enaam Asha, the director of programmes at the Jordanian branch of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, a non-governmental organisation set up in 1998 to promote women's rights. "It doesn't mean that all single women are spinsters. For some, it is their choice to remain single. "There are instances when polygamy is acceptable, like when the relationship between a man and his wife is beyond repair, and the first wife does not want a divorce because of social stigma. But one cannot employ religious verses to serve his own motives." However, one of Mr al Ghanem's wives, Um Abdullah, who works as a religion teacher, said being in a polygamous marriage is a natural thing for her, though she admitted "it would have been difficult if I was the first wife". As for the wife who divorced him, she left because she said the polygamous arrangement was not suitable for a school principal. And for Mr al Ghanem, new opportunities seem to be presenting themselves at just the right time - a new society for single women who want to get married was established last year and he is hoping to expand his services to these women. Still, in his personal life, Mr Al Ghanem appears to contradict himself. While he speaks of helping "lonely" women - divorcees and widows, for example - get married, he is pursuing a 26-year-old who has never been married to make her his fourth wife. He relayed the conversation they had: "I told her, 'My daughter, I am much older than you'. She said, 'Why do you call me your daughter if you want to marry me'. I said, 'Well, if you agree on marriage, then let's get married'." smaayeh@thenational.ae