Israeli Arab women who are in polygamous marriages are significantly worse-off than their monogamous counterparts. Polygamy disrupts women's and children's lives and condemns them to a life of poverty, loneliness and depression.
These are the conclusions of a qualitative study conducted recently among Bedouin women in the Negev by SHATIL and Ma'an, the Forum for Arab Women's Organizations in the Negev.
The study's purpose was to examine the experiences of women living in polygamous marriages and to look at how polygamy affects their lives. During in-depth interviews with polygamous women, the researchers found that:
- the women fear divorce;
- they experience a serious deterioration in their economic situation once their husband marries an additional wife;
- the "left behind wife" loses her social benefits as the state does not recognize more than one wife;
- they suffer physical and emotional abuse after the additional marriage;
- there is a cycle of deprivation of educational opportunity;
- and every woman interviewed opposes polygamy in theory and practice.
One of those surveyed tried to commit suicide after being beaten and humiliated by her husband. She said: "Everything I do is for my children. I cannot divorce and remarry because then I would lose my [eight] children." In Bedouin society, the children of divorce stay with the father and the mother may be forbidden from seeing them.
R, 26, a mother of six who married at 14 and was forced by her husband's family to leave school, said: "My husband's third wife is now building a new home with my husband. I live in their basement. When I first came there, there was no electricity, water, windows or bathrooms. Today there are windows, but still no door."
P, aged 38, echoed other women in polygamous marriages when she said: "I'm against polygamy, because it's hard on the [first] wife and the children. Always, as a result of polygamy, one of the wives is neglected. This is hard on the mother and on the children because they need the father, they need their father's voice, they need their fathers' talk…sometimes they get out of control because of this."
The study was conducted by Hind Elsana, a lobbyist for SHATIL's Bedouin Women's Rights and Leadership Project, funded through the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) as well as a Ma'an attorney and a SHATIL Everett Social Justice Fellow, Tamar Seter. The study's conclusions were presented at a conference at Ben Gurion University as well as at Ma'an's 10th anniversary conference.
The study followed an intensive anti-polygamy media campaign by a coalition of Israeli Arab women's organizations.
Ma'an has launched a project to raise awareness in the Bedouin community about the problems caused by polygamous marriages. A position paper prepared by Elsana will soon be presented to the Knesset.