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  • Author or Editor: Zainab Batul Naqvi x
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A Critical Feminist Analysis

Slaves, mistresses, concubines – the English courts have used these terms to describe polygamous wives in the past, but are they still seen this way today?

Using a critical postcolonial feminist lens, this book provides a contextualised exploration of English legal responses to polygamy. Through the legacies of British imperialism, the book shows how attitudes to polygamy are shaped by indifference and hostility towards its participants. This goes beyond the law, as shown by the stories of women shared throughout the book negotiating their identities and relationships in the UK today.

Through its analysis, the book demonstrates how polygamy and polygamous wives are subjected to imperialist and orientalist discourses which dehumanise them for practising a relationship that has existed for millennia.

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In the introductory chapter, the lack of legal and scholarly engagement with polygamous marriages is displayed. The key themes and arguments of the book are set out. The approach to move beyond asking the question of whether polygamy should exist, which underpins existing debates, is explained. The critical postcolonial feminist conceptual framework is set out along with the key tools of contextualising and disruption that are employed throughout the book to shed light on polygamy in English law and society. The critical race feminist-inspired methodology underpinning the book, which emphasises the importance of voices and stories, is also shared. Finally, an overview of the book structure and the chapters are provided.

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This chapter sets out the foundation for the analysis of responses to polygamous marriage in English law and the courts undertaken in the book. Drawing from the insights of critical postcolonial feminist literature and critiques of orientalism and imperialism, a conceptual lens is created to shed light on the law and women’s experiences and attitudes around polygamy. Two tools are taken from critical postcolonial feminist approaches to advance understandings of polygamous marriage regulation in English law. The first is that of historical consciousness, which is applied to ensure the historical and wider social context of legal responses in this area are considered. The second entails the challenging or disruption of dominant narratives and discourses to build alternative accounts of polygamy and complicate the current legal approaches to polygamy, which are rooted in colonialist orientalism and imperialism.

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This chapter starts to build a contextualised account of the law around polygamous marriage to uncover the forces that shape and frame the law and its effects on people in these marriages. The focus of this chapter is the law around polygamous marriages celebrated in England between individuals who are domiciled and/or living in England. The chapter adds to existing work on domestic polygamy by thinking through the wider contextual issues and dominant discourses in the law that need to be disrupted to better meet the needs of people in polygamous marriages. Stretching back to before European colonising processes, the presence of polygamous communities in ancient Britain are explored. Following this, the chapter is organised around a series of key legal moments in English matrimonial law, including the Bigamy Act 1604; the Clandestine Marriages Act 1753 and the Marriage Act 1836. It is argued that Anglican Christianity dominates English marriage law, which is intertwined with coloniality to make the law indifferent to polygamy. Thus, the law ignores marriage ceremonies and relationships that do not conform to Anglican Christian monogamous ideals.

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In this chapter, English legal and judicial responses to overseas polygamy which are mostly regulated by conflict of laws are explored. Conflict of laws was developed because of colonial encounters and the desire to emphasise the difference and inferiority of non-European legal systems. This orientalist foundation governs responses to overseas marriages, so when the courts look at these relationships, they are not just assessing the law of the place the marriage took place in, but the culture. Current English law cannot be separated out from this context, because these colonial influences determine the way overseas legal and cultural systems along with overseas polygamous marriage are assessed.

Based on a critical discourse analysis of over 50 judicial decisions, it is argued that the courts employ three strategies to deal with overseas polygamy: denigration, mutation and differentiation. The courts have one goal with these three strategies: to preserve (Christian-inspired) monogamy and reinforce it as the ideal structure of marriage.

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This chapter starts with Noreen’s story of marriage, divorce and polygamy, which provides a springboard to share women’s understandings and attitudes around religious and cultural identity as well as how they shaped their experiences and views on marriage and polygamy. It is argued that culture and religion play a significant role in this area, and this is heightened for minoritised women. Mainstream institutions assume that all minoritised religions and cultures are the same, pushing them into a single box labelled ‘other cultures’, and this is manifested in the literature when minoritised people are said to have a ‘religio-cultural identity’. By collapsing minoritised religions and cultures in this way, they are orientalised and othered by institutions and systems, including the law.

It is therefore argued that religion and culture are dual and alternative sources of identity; they are linked but sometimes they conflict. At times, the tensions between them lead to culture being simplistically framed as oppressive, while religion is seen as empowering. The chapter concludes with a disruption of this simplistic binary to argue that rather than culture or religion being the problem, it is gendered and orientalist double standards imposed on women that are oppressive.

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This chapter starts with Jamilah’s story of abuse and power in her marriage and the polygamy which led to her ultimately seeking a divorce. Drawing from Jamilah’s experiences along with other women’s narratives, this chapter tackles the two main charges against polygamy: that it is harmful and that it promotes gender inequalities. The intention is not to defend polygamy – to do so would legitimise the debate on whether it should exist, which is orientalising considering monogamy’s existence is never questioned. Instead, the use of arguments around harm and equality to reject polygamy is disrupted. Relying on these arguments without deeper engagement obscures their patriarchal and Eurocentric foundations. It also cuts off women’s voices and the potential for hearing a wider range of experiences and stories around polygamy where women exercise their agency and act disruptively.

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This chapter draws from Karimah’s experiences of marriage, polygamy and immigration to look at the implications of being a legally recognised wife in the UK. It is shown that recognition is often looked at uncritically and is seen as something for marginalised groups to aspire to when seeking acceptance from society. After exploring its dark past in relation to marriage, the chapter questions how desirable legal recognition is. It is argued that we need to keep its limitations in mind. This is reinforced by the fact that some women are living a disruptive politics of recognition whereby they actively choose to be in non-legally binding marriages. The chapter concludes by thinking through options for reform, suggesting that more work needs to be done from the ground up to address the issues exposed throughout the book, though there is currently little appetite for this.

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This concluding chapter shares the key conclusions of the analysis of English legal and judicial responses to polygamous marriages undertaken in this book. The book is inspired by the insights of critical postcolonial feminist work that underline the need for an awareness of the context surrounding the law and women’s lives. This approach emphasises the importance of voices, especially the ones that are ignored and dismissed by the mainstream. For this reason, the women behind the stories shared in this book were foregrounded throughout. The critical approach taken in this book was also founded on the need to disrupt dominant stories in law, institutions and society around polygamy. The book shows how contemporary iterations of imperialism and orientalism operate to tell certain stories about polygamy, which we accept without question. So that these stories can be disrupted, questions need to be asked about where they came from and why they are accepted. The chapter concludes with a discussion of lingering questions and future directions for research in this area as well as the author’s personal reflections on their personal journey throughout this research project.

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