Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Polyandry in Malaysia

If it hadn't been for my research into polygamy for Asia Sentinel recently, (see: Polygamy in Malaysia), I would never have stumbled across one of Kuala Lumpur's best kept secrets -- polyandry, one woman married to several men.

While conducting interviews, I met 27-year-old Sakina (not her real name). We discussed her previous polygamous marriage to a datuk, the lowest rung of Malaysia's profusion of royal titles, and I could sense deep-seated unease. But before long, on an absolute promise of anonymity, she divulged her shocking story. She revealed that she had long wanted to share her secret.

Earlier, her warm greeting, liquid brown eyes and ready smile revealed little. Her pretty face, framed by her tudung, displayed no anxiety. It was the clenching and unclenching of her small hands, nearly hidden in the folds of the baju kurung of this small and elegantly dressed woman, that betrayed her initial unease.

And yet the modern but religious Muslim woman experienced a cathartic release as she unburdened herself. She admitted that what she did was unlawful. If Malaysians are unsettled by socially tolerated polygamy, then polyandry would doubtless cause an unprecedented firestorm.

What started out for Sakina as a whirlwind romantic fairytale wedding to the datuk ended abruptly. They met at the duty-free outlet where she worked, as she helped choose perfumes for his first wife. After a brief period of wooing, convinced that his love for her was genuine, they flew into Thailand for the wedding-and-honeymoon. Her first trip overseas. But before many months later, his conjugal visits became less frequent, calls went unanswered and rumors abounded that a younger, fresher-faced version was the datuk's newest plaything. She resolved never to be duped or dumped again.

With the rent unpaid and her savings gone, she was fortunate to return to her previous job. Her marriage had not been registered in Malaysia, which left her no avenue for legal recourse. She vowed never to let her head rule her heart again.

For months, she underwent an enforced period of celibacy as an abandoned wife. But waiting for another man (and sex) is like waiting for a bus. You stand for ages, then several come along together. First, she met a man who worked on offshore rigs. Again, they met at the duty-free counter. Then she attracted another; a pilot. Neither was married. One had gone through a long and acrimonious divorce. The younger, more sensitive man had been jilted for an older wealthy man. Both craved love, companionship and stability.

Sakina's dates, each aware of the other's presence, both proposed. Undecided, she took her time choosing. In the end, she decided to share them. For Sakina, this was serendipitous. Significantly, she was convinced of the gender equality inherent in Islam as it says in the Qur'an: "I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other (3:195)". Men and women had the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities. If men were entitled to four wives, she should have four husbands, she said.

In truth, Sakina said, she found that polyandry empowered her and had great economic and social benefits. Wise from her previous bad experience, she drew up a marriage contract and purchased a house in her name, funded by both men. Marrying abroad meant that her husband, whichever one she chose, need only pay the penalty and fine for late registration if challenged for marital proof. Being previously linked with the datuk afforded a degree of protection as few dared confront her, thinking it might offend him.

The allowance from two husbands provided a luxurious lifestyle. Everyone was happy. The husbands spent less, had more available spare cash, felt less burdened with chores and spent more time on recreational activities, like golf to keep out of her hair. Even the maids kept silent for they were handsomely rewarded. The affordable large house meant ample rooms for each man to personalize. The gated estate full of expatriates helped. She even enrolled at college. As each husband's work took him away for long stretches, they arranged a rota so that at least one of them was at home. On the rare occasions when both were around, they practiced restraint, forebearance and discipline. It was a healthy husband-life balance. Living in metropolitan Kuala Lumpur, a city of lonely people, anonymity was easy. Other people were too absorbed in their own lives.

Significantly, it is the woman in polyandry who decides on family size. With birth control, Sakina said, she felt she could space her pregnancies within her natural child-bearing cycle, or even choose which husband to father the child. Doubts about polyandry only surfaced when asked about starting a family. Her guarded response, “I'll cross that bridge when I come to it,” was quickly brushed aside when she said that paternity tests for determining clear lines of succession would be used, should her husbands insist on actual parentage.

Women may be terrible with maps and navigation, but are more emotionally intelligent and brilliant at multitasking. Sakina says her proclivity to mothering and trust in her womanly instincts makes her husbands more attentive and appreciative of her.

In her opinion, the two sexes respond differently to competition. Men try harder to outperform the other, women become jealous or clingy, which was great for her sex life. Was she speaking from past experience? Having husbands who were not underfoot 24/7 helped. When at home, they seemed more focused. Others could misconstrue this as men cowering from the alpha female, perhaps?

Polyandry, rare in European and Asian civilizations, thrived in inhospitable places like Tibet and Siberia. The Navars from Malabar, in India, once practiced a version of it. Polyandry developed because of economics and convenience for the man. He couldn't afford a wife, there was insufficient labor and he wanted to keep land within the family. Isolated Tibetan communities still practice it. Brothers from one family would marry one woman and take turns to herd sheep and trade. Smaller families meant property remained undivided.

The closest that Malaysia has to polyandry is the Adat Pepatih in Negri Sembilan. Adat Pepatih or matrilineal succession meant that inheritance, principally land ownership, was passed to the subject's female relatives to the total exclusion of males. But the conflict between religion and tradition resulted in Malays abandoning the practice.

However, the way modern society has evolved may make polyandry more suitable than previously thought. It boils down to society's acceptance. In today's world, more highly educated and skilled working women are comfortable with their single status. In fact, according to a recent article in The Economist, women will very soon become a majority in the American workforce and breaking through the glass ceiling. Other countries can't be far behind. Financial independence means a scarcity of women in the marriage pool. In China and India, where amniocentesis has meant that girl babies are aborted, boys vastly outnumber girls. Men may be forced to turn to polyandry as an alternative to celibacy, prostitution or homosexuality.

If men claim that women are difficult to arouse and satisfy, polyandry makes good sexual sense. As sex researchers claim women achieve multiple orgasms in a short space of time, polyandry is ideal. Men view sex as a physical activity, women associate it with emotion. The American comic Billy Crystal once observed that women need a reason to make love, men just need a place. But men should never doubt a woman's sexuality, her sexual needs, or even her ability to serve several men. Wives with many lovers do it. Prostitutes make a profession from it. Neither should men doubt middle-aged women's sexual needs. Notice how toy-boys brag in the Malaysian papers about requests to accompany middle-aged ladies on overseas trips. Women can be ruthless in and out of bed. They are motivated and accept challenges, both in the boardroom and the bedroom.

If marriage in Islam is based on mutual peace, love and compassion, then the polyandrous marriage has all of these and more. Women are more astute in their choice of partners, Sakina said, despite her first disaster with the datuk. She feels she got it right the second time, or, if you prefer, the second and third simultaneously. Women are better judges of character -- they place more emphasis on long-term needs like companionship and stability. Equality in Islam should mean just that – equal treatment for both men and women. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Will conservative Muslims feel that way or will the men be furious at their bruised male egos when their women demand more than one husband?

Granted that men and women are created differently, the nurturing tendencies in women make them more predisposed to rearing happy, strong and stable families. There is little evidence that polyandry destroys the family structure or brings chaos and disintegration. The argument that a polyandrous woman is full of lust and is surrendering to her whims, thus leading to communal chaos, is incorrect.

So, having come across Sakina, one wonders if there are more like her. From Sakina's experience, it appears there ought to be. It would certainly make women happy.

Mariam Mokhtar is a real person. Sakina is not. But we thought we might give the datuks something to think about.