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Polygamy Versus Democracy

Stanley Kurtz

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You can't have both.

It took a television series about a Viagra-popping patriarch with three friendly/jealous wives and tightly scheduled evenings to set off a serious public debate about polygamy. And that was precisely the intention of the creators of this now infamous television show--no, not Big Love, the American series that debuted on HBO in March, but 'Ailat Al-Hagg Metwalli (Hagg Metwalli's Family), an Egyptian serial that stirred emotions and sparked a bitter debate about polygamy in the Muslim world during the holy month of Ramadan 2001.

The drama heats up when fiftysomething Metwalli Said, longtime husband of three, decides to court a young woman, Samira, in the hope of making her his fourth wife. Unbeknownst to Metwalli, Samira is in love with his own son, who is eventually forced by his father to forsake Samira to marry the daughter of a relative (as is often preferred in Muslim societies). Metwalli's Viagra-induced heart attack brings the story to a head.

Metwalli's polygamy serves as a kind of Rorschach test of Muslim modernization. Studying viewer responses to this serial, Norwegian historian of religion Anne Sofie Roald found that assimilated Muslim immigrant women in the West see Metwalli as a dictator: running around on his wives, forcing them to give up their jobs, forbidding them to leave the house without permission, selfishly forcing his son out of a love marriage, and generally insisting that his word is law.

Yet some unassimilated Muslim immigrant women in Europe, and many Muslim men, admire Metwalli for successfully embodying polygamy as authorized by Islam. Metwalli follows the Koranic precepts: telling all of his wives that he loves them, materially supporting them well and equally, and generally managing his family in the interests of all. Even Metwalli's son eventually comes around: Affection burgeons in his arranged marriage after his wife bears him a child.

Read the entire article on the Weekly Standard website (new window will open).

Posted: 04-Jun-06



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