“Freedom of religion does not really exist in America,” said Mansour.
We were sitting in an apartment in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. Mansour was known for being from a strongly religious family, and for being quite religious himself.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
Mansour thought about this while. “In America,” he said slowly, “it is illegal for a man to have more than one wife.”
“That is true,” I agreed.
“But Islam allows a man to have as many as four wives,” he pointed out.
“That is true,” I acknowledged.
“Since a Muslim man cannot have more than one wife in America, he does not enjoy freedom of religion there. America discriminates against Muslims.”
I pointed out that in America, freedoms are curtailed when their exercise hurts others. No man, Muslim or otherwise, was permitted to have more than one wife. This was because it was disadvantageous and harmful for a woman to have to share a husband with one or more other women.
Mansour was visibly impatient as he listened to this explanation. “But men and women are adults. If a woman agrees to marry a man who already has a wife, why should the government interfere?”
“But what about a woman who already is married to a man?” I asked. “Does she willingly agree that her husband take another wife?”
“Well, no,” he admitted. “She usually cries, and screams that she will go back to her parents. But in the end, she usually…accepts.”
Mansour then went on to relate how, although he only had one wife, his father had had four and some of his brothers had more than one. Problems among the women could arise when a new wife entered the household, but eventually things settled down.
“And sometimes,” he added, “it is the first wife who will arrange for her husband to marry a second one. If, for example, she can’t have children and she doesn’t want him to divorce her, she will arrange for one of her sisters or cousins to marry him. It’s also beneficial for her because she is already on good terms with the new wife.”
A general discussion then ensued about the advantages and disadvantages of having more than one wife. One man observed that while a single wife was insufficient, four was too many to deal with. Two, he thought, was ideal. Some disagreed with this, but there was a general consensus among the Yemeni men present that a man should have the right to choose the number of wives which suited him.
“If a man should have the freedom to choose up to four wives, shouldn’t a woman have the freedom to choose up to four husbands?” I asked.
The question seemed logical enough to me, but it had the effect of completely halting the conversation. The men in the room all stared at me, apparently in shock.
Mansour finally broke the silence. In a voice that indicated he was explaining something so basic that it should not have to be explained at all, he said, “But our religion does not allow.