Something woke me up. Wasn’t sure what it was, at first.
Then, I realize that the phone is ringing.
I reached for it, and picked it up, dimly wondering who on earth it could be at that hour. A wrong number, maybe? Not that many people have my phone number, and anyone who knows me knows better than to try calling me at 2 am. I’m barely able to string a sentence together at that hour. Especially not when I have work the next day.
It was one of my daughters. Her voice was shaking with sobs. I asked her what was wrong, and she began to talk about… her memories of when I was still stuck in polygamy.
Her father shouting at her to do the cooking and cleaning while I was off at school (trying to get some skills training so that I could get a job because now that he had taken another wife, I needed to find a way to support myself and the kids). The feeling of being made to be the woman of the house, although she was not even in high school yet. The other woman—now called her “other mother”—coming to visit from abroad for the first time, with her kids, and my ex telling my kids that these are their siblings now. And then, after my ex divorced her, she and her kids vanished… and my daughter wondered what became of them. How could they be her siblings one month and no relation at all the next?
And (she went on), now her father has remarried… and did I know that his new wife is expecting? The baby will be born several weeks from now. Will this be another brother or sister that she will never see or know, growing up on the other side of the world? And will her father take responsibility for that child? Will he treat him or her better than he treated them? “Because he basically abandoned us,” she said. “He didn’t take care of us… will he take care of it?”
I hardly knew what to say. I tried to mostly listen, trying to walk a line between validating her feelings of anger and frustration and grief and abandonment, but trying not to say anything to make her feel even worse.
She was under pressure from the extended family, she said. Some relatives had recently been on her case because they felt that her attitude of her father was not sufficiently respectful. He was briefly visiting this part of the world, so she should go to him and be glad to see him. She said that her attempts to explain that she had to work (after all, it wasn’t as if he was paying a cent towards her tuition or living expenses) hadn’t been received well. But aside from work, she was angry with him… and also ashamed.
“I don’t really have friends here,” she said. “Because I don’t want anyone to get too close. When people start getting to know you, they ask about your family, and… I’m ashamed. I don’t want anyone to know about my family. I don’t want to them to know that my father had two wives and that I grew up with that. And that he’s married another wife, and he lives on the other side of the world and hardly sees me or even cares.”
She was dealing with the aftermath of polygamy the way that I have dealt with it (as well as the aftermath of exiting a cult)—keeping away from people, except for a few old Muslim friends who pretty much knew what my life had been like and had seen worse so I could be fairly sure that they wouldn’t judge or reject me… and who I rarely get to see anyway. But she had been a social butterfly in high school, and used to tease me about my introverted ways. Now, she was retreating into her shell, in shame. This was alarming.
She began to tell me about one (Muslim) sort-of-friend she did have, who is dealing with an openly cheating father and a mother who is financially trapped in the marriage and desperately trying to win her husband back. “I can hear the conversations, when her mother calls her… and it brings it all back. Baba shouting at me to clean, like I’m the woman of the house…. you… and us. Those days. And I feel I don’t really have a family now.”
I tried to explain to her what this is. And that she needs to get counseling as soon as possible. That it’s available through student services at her institution.
She objects that she can’t talk about her feelings to a stranger. And that she can’t stand it if anyone knows about her growing up on polygamy. And about her father. I remind her that she has a friend who is going through much the same thing that she had just told me about, and assured her that lots of people come from families that don’t fit the ideal, made-for-tv mold. And that she has her whole life ahead of her, and that with counseling, she can deal with these awful memories and her past doesn’t have to shadow her present and future.
After she hung up, I stared into the dark, far too worried to sleep.
When Muslims discuss polygamy, whether they criticize it or justify it, the focus is usually on the adults in the picture. How will the husband afford more than one wife? How will he do justice between them? What if the first wife is opposed to him taking another wife? How should “jealousy” between wives be dealt with? How can polygamy be fair to women? And so on and so on.
But little is usually said about the impact on the children. It is usually taken for granted that since according to Islamic law, the father is obligated to financially provide for his children and ensure that their religious training is taken care of, that somehow, all will be well. Occasionally, it may be acknowledged that in lived reality, men who practice polygamy or divorce their first wives may not be able or terribly motivated to provide for much less pay attention to the children of such lesser or rejected marriages—especially once those children become young adults who are resentful of how they and their mothers were treated. But by and large, that isn’t the focus. Sure, some people in my ex’s community will tut-tut about how he should pay more attention to his children “Islamically,” but like the extended family, they will also blame my daughter for her anger and frustration and lack of daughterly dutifulness.
My kids learned so many powerful life lessons through their experiences of their father’s polygamy.
The girls learned that in the end, the sexual desires of men and their wishes and wants allow them to treat their dependents like counters, pushing them around as they will.
And the boys learned that while it may not be much fun to be on the receiving end of such treatment, that when they grow up such divinely approved power will be their birthright, whether or not they actually choose to wield it.