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Amina Buhari was in the kitchen cooking her husband’s favorite meal, when the doorbell rang. She rushed to open the door for her husband, Usman, who was returning from a business trip to Africa. She opened the door and stood face to face with her husband, and the tradition she thought she left behind in Africa – his second wife.
Distraught, Amina, a Guinean immigrant, protested: “Was this “the business” he had to take care of in Guinea? Why did he bring the woman here?” Her husband reminded her that their Islamic religion permits him to marry up to four wives and he was only exercising his rights as a Muslim man.
Unfortunately, Amina’s case is not uncommon in Queens. Usman, like many other West African Muslim immigrants, has successfully smuggled polygamy into Jamaica, New York. There is a ripe polygamous culture in the West African community in Queens.
Under immigration laws, polygamy is outlawed in the United States. Yet, many West African Muslim men transport young, illiterate and powerless brides from the villages of Mali, Senegal, and Guinea to New York, and engage the girls in a polygamous culture that inevitably produces jealousy, domestic violence and immigration hurdles. Although polygamy is illegal in New York, it is legal in some parts of Africa and Islam does, in fact, allow a man to marry up to four wives.
Polygamy in America is outlawed in every state but rarely prosecuted. Under immigration law, polygamy is grounds for deportation from the United States. Under New York State law, bigamy can be punished by up to four years in prison. However, It’s an open secret that continues to torment the lives of the women and girls that are victims of this practice.
A man gets around the laws by marrying one woman under civil law, and then marries the others in religious ceremonies not recognized by the state. In other cases, men marry both in the United States and abroad.
There is no agency known to collect data on polygamous marriages, and no one knows how many West African Muslim immigrants live in polygamous families. However, an official at Masjid Abu-Bakr Community Center in Queens agreed to comment on this issue on the condition of anonymity. He said, “About 60 percent of mosque members at the center are polygamous families.” The official said most of the members were born and raised in polygamous families and won’t change their tradition just because the U.S. thinks it’s unlawful. “Our religion, Islam, allows polygamy as long as a man loves and treats all his wives equally,” he said.
While this culture benefits the men, the women are condemned to a life of hopelessness and depression. The women are in some cases forced to marry a man they don’t love, sometimes the teenagers are forced to marry someone twice their age or someone who already has a wife. Usually, there is the presence of domestic violence and jealousy in a polygamous home but many girls keep quiet for fear of deportation.
Aisha, a hair stylist in Queens, was only seventeen years old when her ex-husband from Guinea, twice her age, brought her to the United States.
“My ex-husband used to complain and beat me all the time because I could not give him a boy. For five years he abused me and threatened to marry a second wife, so finally I packed my things and left with my two girls,” says Aisha. Aisha first moved into a homeless shelter but eventually moved into a one- bedroom apartment with her children.
The NPR news, a nonprofit organization, reported – you can see some of the women involved in polygamous marriages in the lobby of Sanctuary for Families, a center for women. The women gather for a weekly noon meeting for West African immigrants. The women come each week to this support group where they discuss hard issues, such as domestic abuse, immigration hurdles and polygamy. Almost every one of the women in the group has experienced polygamy firsthand – either as a wife in a plural marriage or having been raised in families with one father who has two or more wives.
Although polygamy is illegal in the United States, the Muslims will not put and end to this practice. Their ancestors engaged in it and their leader whom they so love, admire and emulate – Prophet Mohammed had numerous wives. So asking them to put and end to polygamy will fall on deaf ears; however, individuals and organizations can meet with Islam leaders to figure a way to help and assist these women with immigration, health, therapy and childcare issues. Also, to provide services that allows women to voice their concerns.
Every woman deserves peace of mind, love and happiness. Like Amina said, “I was in bondage but am now free. Every woman deserves to be free and happy.”