Note: I am curious about a Muslim man’s religious right to have up to 4 wives at the same time. This post is the first in a series of stories about Arab wives who live with this either personally, or the ever-hoovering possibility of it becoming a personal reality.
The door to the teachers’ room swung open and a tall, elegant woman entered with the confidence of a privileged princess. “I need to see you,” she said to Maha, then began her promenade toward the row of teachers’ desks.
This is a fairly common occurrence: the mother of a student in the school comes into the room and requests the teacher of her daughter to meet her outside in the hallway for a conversation. But the hush that fell over the room when this particular woman entered told me that this case was somehow different.
We all sat up straight on our chairs behind our desks and awaited her greeting. The woman’s hijab sat perfectly balanced and symmetrical over her head, covering what I assumed to be long mane of hair wrapped into a large bun at the back of her head. Only a glimpse of hair could be seen at the hairline above her forehead – a puff of rich, black strands teased, combed, pinned and sprayed in place. The porcelain complexion of her face was angelic, though her eyes were less so; her eyes were solid, firm, determined. The bright pink on her manicured toes flashed with each step in her black, designer, high-heel shoes, and as she glided across the room, her black Abaya, accented with ornate stitchery, swished seductively at her feet and trailed behind her across the floor.
“Salam Aleikum,” she said.
“Wa aleikum salam,” we replied in turn.
Sweet female voices exchanged the formal greeting, one by one, as the guest reached over each of our desks with a fragile arm, shaking hands. Her bony fingers were limp in my warm, fleshy grip. Last in the line was Aliyah. I noted the lethargy in Aliyah’s voice as it was so unlike her usual gregarious way.
Then the guest left the room as dramatically as she’d arrived, followed by Maha, teacher of her daughter.
“She’s Morrocan,” Alyiah told me as soon as the door closed behind them. “And that’s Hannan’s sister’s husband’s first wife.”
My request for clarity was lost in the Arabic banter that arose as soon as the door clicked closed.
“Yes, it’s true,” Hannan finally said, leaning forward to be seen from the line of teachers’ desks when there was a lull in the Arabic exchange. “But they are divorced. When he asked my sister to marry him, my sister said she would never be a second wife, so if he wanted to marry her, he would have to divorce his first wife. So this Morrocan went back to Morroco.”
Again, all the teachers started speaking at the same time. The Arabic was too much, too fast, too colloquial; I couldn’t follow it.
“But she’s back,” Aliyah said in English. “Yup. She came back to be close to her kids.” Her eyebrows rose and fell; her lips pursed.
I looked to Hannan, wondering what, and how much I could ask.
“She wants to be near her children. Do you blame her?” Hannan barked her rhetorical question into the air, aimed at no one.
“Of course,” I said, feeling sympathetic toward The Moroccan Woman.
“She lives right next door,” Aliyah said under her breath. I took that information in, recognizing that it was for me to know, but not to be a part of the conversation.
This time when the Arabic took over my opportunity to pursue more information, I was grateful. This was a lot for me to process: The Moroccan Woman was the first wife of Man X; Man X wanted to marry Hannan’s sister, so he divorced The Moroccan Woman. With the divorce, she left her children and returned to her home – far, far away from here. Man X married Hannan’s sister and they had some children. Questions swirled: How much time between The Moroccan Woman’s divorce and her return? What happened to The Moroccan Woman during that time? What caused her to return? Hadn’t she always missed her children? Why now? Why return now?
Suddenly I noticed an opening in the Arabic conversations and I filled the gap with other questions. “How does she live?” I asked. “How does she get money? Does your sister’s husband pay for her needs?”
“No, he doesn’t have to,” Aliyah answered.
Aliyah continued, “She got an Emirati citizenship when she married him, so coming back here means she gets money from the government to live on. The government here pays for divorced women until they get married again. Then when she gets married again, the husband has to be responsible.”
Why anyone would want to remarry? I wondered. With financial security and freedom, what could possibly be better than that? Having the government pay for a house and living expenses; hmmm; sounds like pretty good arrangement to me, I thought.
“But you know people are talking,” Aliyah said.
Hannan got up to turn on the tea pot for hot water. She looked to me because clearly, I was the only one in the room not privy to such talk. “Some people say maybe she and my sister’s husband are getting back together,” she said. “But my sister won’t talk about it, so we don’t know.” Then she looked hard at Alyiah, “We don’t know!”
“But she can marry him again,” Alyiah said.
“Alyiah!” Hannan took on a tone of reprimand. Then the room erupted again into animated Arabic chatter.
Aliyah derailed from the Arabic and said to me in English, “In Islam, people can get married again. But only if the woman marries a different man first and then and gets divorced from him. If she doesn’t get married again, she can’t remarry a man who divorced her, but if she marries a different man, then yes, she can remarry the first one. But only if that other marriage was real. I mean, the man who divorced her can’t just say to another man, ‘ hey you: marry my ex-wife and divorce her so I can marry her again’. No. it has to be a real marriage.”
My head flooded with questions – not only about Islam, but about divorce and marriage and remarriage and the logistics, the emotions, oh! The complications!
“Aliyah, we don’t know about that other marriage either,” Hannan countered. “Maybe she’s just not a good wife and that’s why she got divorced. We don’t know! And besides. Maybe my sister’s husband doesn’t want her back.
The bell rang. Maha returned to the room. Everyone started shuffling papers on their desks. We gathered books and papers and filed out of the teachers’ room to go teach our next class.