KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — The number of Muslims asking for free legal advice on polygamy is rising, statistics from a legal clinic operated by Sisters in Islam (SIS) has shown.
Polygamy cases recorded at the Telenisa legal aid clinic rose from 75 in 2016 to 106 in 2017, and 176 in 2018.
The SIS said this was happening against a backdrop of weakening legal protection over the years for the current wife, which has made it easier and easier for Muslim men to take on more wives.
SIS programme manager Shareena Sheriff said many Muslim men secretly have subsequent marriages by going to the border of Thailand to bypass Malaysian legal requirements that require these marriages to be validated in a Shariah court.
Shareena said it was a weakness of Malaysian law that Muslims who marry abroad are allowed to subsequently register it in Malaysia without having to first have it approved in court.
“So this is how these marriages remain secret, they marry in Thailand, they come back and secretly register it,” she said at the launch of Telenisa’s booklet on its 2018 statistics of cases it handled.
“In many marriages, the marriages are not even registered. When divorces happen, the status of the wife is as if they were never married,” she added.
According to Telenisa, cases of subsequent marriages that went unregistered in Malaysia amounted to 11.4 per cent of the 176 polygamy cases it handled in 2018, with affected wives losing their rights to the inheritance and matrimonial property while their children are regarded as illegitimate.
Shareena also pointed out the problem of husbands either refusing to give money to provide for the maintenance or reducing such funds for the wife and children from an earlier marriage, after taking on a new wife.
Out of the 176 polygamy cases at Telenisa in 2018, 15.9 per cent revolved on complaints of subsequent marriages without the current wife’s knowledge, while 15.2 per cent were on subsequent marriages without the current wife’s consent.
Some of the current wives only found out years later that their husband had taken on additional wives.
Cases in which husbands gave no money to their current wives amounted to 9.7 per cent of the 176 cases, while 10.8 per cent said their children no longer receive financial provision from the husband.
As for the remaining cases, 10.8 per cent were on wives being unhappy, while 9.7 per cent involved absconded husbands, 7.4 per cent complaining of unjust rotation and 9.1 per cent involved other complaints.
Those who consulted Telenisa last year on polygamy consisted of the first wife in 62 of the 176 cases, the second wife (41 cases), third wife (five cases), husband (two cases) and partner (37 cases).
The Telenisa booklet also outlined the unfair laws in Malaysia on polygamy, with SIS noting that the rights of the current wife have been increasingly chiselled away over the years with legal amendments in 1994 and 2006.
The 1994 amendment allows for secret polygamous marriages, by permitting the registration of illegal marriages — that were entered into without the court’s permission — with the payment of a small fine.
Muslim men who wanted to marry an additional wife previously had to show the marriage was both just and necessary, but the 2006 amendment loosened it to either just or necessary, with the risk of adultery by the husband also accepted as a necessary condition.
The booklet by SIS also noted that Muslim men are no longer legally required to maintain the standard of living of their current wives, which SIS said directly contradicts the Muslims’ holy book Al-Quran.
The booklet also listed the laws in other Muslim countries, such as those which ban polygamy like Turkey, or such as in Indonesia where polygamous marriages requires court authorisation upon fulfilment of strict rules and which can only be concluded if the existing wives agree.
Laws in Muslim countries like Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon recognises the wife’s right to divorce after the husband enters into subsequent marriages, while Shareena noted that polygamy is not a condition for divorce in Malaysia.
Among other things, the booklet by Telenisa covers statistics on and issues of divorces, child custody, child maintenance, as well as property division or division of inheritance.
Telenisa, which has been giving free legal advice since 2008 on Islamic family law and Shariah criminal offences, recorded a total of 576 clients in 2018.
Deputy women, family and community development minister Hannah Yeoh, who officiated the launch of the Telenisa booklet, today acknowledged the importance of SIS’s work.
Yeoh also announced a pledge of RM20,000 to SIS to support its work, with the funds to be from her allocation as deputy minister.
Yeoh encouraged SIS to go on a nationwide roadshow to explain and present its data and findings in the Telenisa booklet to MPs and state assemblymen in the respective states, as Islamic matters is under the jurisdiction of state governments.
In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Yeoh also took the opportunity to acknowledge on behalf of the government the work of NGOs such as SIS, Women’s Aid Organisation and Tenaganita.
“I want to acknowledge your contribution to Malaysia, I think Malaysians would be in a worse position if not for your efforts in the last few decades,” she said.