Marital Status

Muslim women and the surprising facts about polygamy in India

A look at the numbers to see how prevalent the practice is in society and whether the law could actually have any effect.

A fresh effort from a Muslim women’s organisation seeking to further codify the way Islamic law is applied in India takes an unusual position: it calls for a ban on polygamy. The law drafted by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, aimed at further codifying Islamic legal provisions regarding marriage, first set down after the famous Shah Bano case, would make all polygamous marriages illegal.

In calling for a ban on polygamy, the BMMA finds itself in unusual company. The Bharatiya Janata Party has for years been calling for a Uniform Civil Code that would replace all religious laws with one that governs all citizens. Chief among the demands of those who have called for the UCC is a ban on Muslim polygamy – whether out of belief in secularism or, as opponents allege, because they think having extra wives allows Muslims to have children at a faster rate than Hindus.

Muslims not very polygamous

But the numbers indicate that polygamy is not really that widespread among Indian Muslims.

Exact data on the subject is hard to come by, primarily because the 1961 census was the last one to look at marriages by religion and community. That survey, in fact, found that incidence of polygamy was the least among Muslims, with just 5.7% of the community likely to practice it. Hindus actually had a higher incidence rate of polygamy, at 5.8%, although other communities, including Buddhists and Jains, were proportionally even more likely to practice polygamy. At the top were tribals, 15.25% of whom were polygamous.



“It may be allowed by Muslim personal law, but the incidence rate is not that high,” said Ritu Menon, a feminist publisher and independent scholar, who worked on the subject as co-author of the book Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India. “This is true particularly in relation to Hindus, but across all communities, polygamy is not that common. Bigamy, on the other hand, is fairly common and that’s true across religions.”

Subsequent data seems to confirm this. A survey carried out by the government in 1974 put the polygamy figure at 5.6% among Muslims, and 5.8% for upper-caste Hindus. Research by Mallika B Mistry of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune in 1993, later recorded by John Dayal, also concluded that “there is no evidence that the percentage of polygamous marriage (among Muslims) is larger than for Hindus.”

According to the third National Family Health Survey carried out in 2006, 2% of women reported that their husbands had more than one wife. More than the religion of the parties involved, determinant reasons were not having a child or a male child from the first wife, education and the age of first wife. It found that a polygamous Hindu was likely to have 1.77 wives, a polygamous Muslim 2.55, Christian 2.35, and Buddhist 3.41.



Multiple marriages were most prevalent in the north-east, followed by the south and the eastern region of India. In north and central India, it was almost non-existent.

Crucially, all of these studies came after the Hindu Code bills were enacted in the 1950s, when bigamy and polygamy were outlawed for Hindus. Yet, the relative incidence rates across communities appears to be comparable.

“The Hindu Marriage Act is just like any other law. It can only accomplish so much. The law also prohibits child marriages, but those also continue to happen,” Menon said.

Nevertheless, the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is insistent that the Muslim community needs to have a law against polygamy, to move towards a society that treats women with dignity and equality.

BMMA co-founder Zakia Soman insisted that it would allow those fighting for gender justice to have the support of the law. “We don't imagine that just passing the laws mean things will change,” she said. “At the end of the day, there is no substitute for proper grassroots activism. But at least it is on the books.”

 
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.