It happens far more often than anyone is willing to admit or acknowledge. A woman who is a widow, or whose family owes someone money, or who has caught the eye of a lecherous boss, or who is no longer very young, or who fails to fit the "fair and lovely" demands of the usual suitors, is approached by an older man for marriage.

This type of male suitor is already married, often with grown children and successful business interests. Creeping into advanced years, he wants to add something new to his life, and given his means and money, he can afford for this freshness to be a new marital arrangement.

Given the fact that four wives are permitted to the Pakistan man, there are no legal obstacles to his desires. There is, however, the prospect of the ire of the existing wife and her family, or drawing the censure of a community that may giggle and snicker at an aging groom’s mid-life marriage.

The answer is a secret marriage, legally valid but socially surreptitious, a recipe for the man of means to really have it all. Not only is the man newly married a second time, he is also now a secret saviour, rescuing some hapless woman from the absolute horror and hell of remaining husband-less in a society that worships men.

Not all secret marriages, though, are done for this reason – some are conjured in secret because the parties not previously married believe that their families will be opposed to the match. Other cases – more and more prevalent, given Pakistan’s large expatriate worker population – involve men working abroad who have wives at home and at work. Often, the second wife knows about the first; usually the first wife is completely unaware of her husband’s secret family. When the secret wife produces children, they too bear the burden of being secret children, whose surreptitious father sires them but will not publicly claim them. If and when the secret marriage is discovered, the secret wife and her children face the risk of divorce and repudiation, leaving them in an even more vulnerable position when the secret husband/father abandons them.

Technicalities apart

According to Dr Mohammed Fadel, professor of law at the University of Toronto, who specialises in Islamic jurisprudence, some schools of thought consider secret marriages to be technically legal on the basis that they fulfill all stipulations of an Islamic marriage contract. However, others are more sceptical of such an arrangement.

What may be technically legal, however, is not necessarily moral and may actually be quite far from being good. In his discussion of secret marriages, Dr Fadel points out that while Islamic marriage emphasises consent to ensure that the two individuals entering into marriage are happy with the arrangement, individual happiness is not the one and only goal of a Muslim marriage.

Indeed, as Fadel argues, the technicalities of an Islamic marriage contract, the requirement of mahr
(a payment made by the groom or his family to the bride) and of witnesses, can be seen as safeguards that point to the necessary involvement of the community in the relationship. While secret marriages can skirt this requirement by finding witnesses (and guardians on the female side) who are willing to keep the marriage secret, this can be seen as a contravention of the purpose of witnesses themselves.

The prescription to publicise and celebrate marriage can be seen as existing for the express reason that when a larger number of people know of the relationship, and support and celebrate it, the chances of abuse and neglect are reduced. In secret marriages, no such checks exist on the behaviour of men. Predators know their prey, most women who enter these surreptitious arrangements are already vulnerable and the underhanded nature of the arrangement further exposes them as well as their children to abuse, shame and neglect.

Compromise or choice?

In a patriarchal society, where men dominate, arguments against secret marriages are quickly transformed into promotions of polygamy. If secret marriages are wrong, eager adherents of multiple marriages argue, then it is the task of women, of first wives (and consequently second and third ones), to readily hand out permission for subsequent marriages. It’s a clever trick that, like secret marriages themselves, looks to reduce faith and its following to technical prescriptions (and hence self-serving loopholes) rather than the larger principles of love and compassion

Some attention to these values, so routinely ignored by Muslim men, would suggest that marital unions in which the wife feels subdued, coerced, used and manipulated can never be the foundation for the just society that is envisioned by the Islamic faith. A revival of love and compassion as the foundation of all marriages would require an end to both secret marriages and polygamous marriages. Both these forms may technically be allowed to exist and persist (given that the vast majority of Muslim jurists have been and continue to be men) but they would be absent of the sort of affection that exists between freely choosing partners. A compromise born of circumstances, a situation that dictates the assent of most women who become a part of such a relationship, is not the same as a choice.

In countries like Egypt, the state informs first wives when their husbands marry again, since registration of marriages is a requirement. In Pakistan, many marriages are not registered, and even if they were, the state is not required to make such information available. As a result, all women, those who are married and those who may marry, are vulnerable to being duped by men who manipulate the technicality of marital requirements to suit their desires for new or more wives, while paying no attention at all to the moral requirements of a Muslim marriage.

This article first appeared on Dawn.