With only approximately 6 percent of married women in Yemen living in polygamous marriages, such relationships are neither popular nor widespread. Nevertheless, polygamy in Yemen remains a complicated issue.
Polygamy is neither confined to one socioeconomic class nor are all women unwilling participants. Furthermore, whether in situations where they do or do not love their husbands, women in polygamous marriages are not necessarily victims or without agency. In fact, women may opt to enter such arrangements for both religious and pragmatic reasons. Without denying the insecurity, jealousy, hurt and humiliation that polygamy can cause, polygamy can also provide women with the room to negotiate their lives to their personal advantage. Women can and do carve out opportunities for themselves within polygamous situations.
Marriage in general brings respectability, even status, as well as greater freedom of movement outside of the house for many Yemeni women. These realities as well as the sharing or lessening of marital and familial responsibilities in a polygamous marriage, can provide women opportunities for self-fulfillment beyond being a wife and mother. In a conservative society such as Yemen, polygamy becomes one of a limited number of viable options women consider in the negotiation of their futures.
Lamia and her husband’s other wife, ‘Aisha, for example, share the second floor of a large villa in Sanaa. The husband’s apartment is on the top floor and the ground floor is communal space. Lamia regularly hosts a Qur’anic study group in this communal area, which ‘Aisha often attends. Lamia also heads a small non-governmental organization for women. Lamia married her husband in her teens, and together they had 11 children. It was she who found her husband his second wife. ‘Aisha was a relatively prominent personality heading a women’s organization. She remains one of the most active and responsible members of the organization and originally chose to marry her husband precisely because he agreed to allow her to continue her activities. To the outsider, the women appear to get along very well. The two wives help each other with their respective organizations whenever they can. Both attend the university, one in the morning, the second in the afternoon, while the other cares for the children.
Arwa’s story is also intriguing. Arwa is a writer/journalist publishing both inside and outside of Yemen. She is divorced and has a son from her first husband. A young, dynamic, intelligent and outspoken woman, Arwa signed a second marriage contract to enter a polygamous marriage as the third wife. As in the case of Lamia and ‘Aisha, the second wife, a good friend of Arwa’s, arranged Arwa’s marriage to her husband. Similarly, it was the first wife who arranged the marriage of the second wife, also a friend of hers, to her husband.
Later, Arwa’s husband asked her to arrange his fourth marriage to a friend of hers, Khadija, a university administrator and former lecturer. Arwa was unwilling to consider arranging this match, but Khadija in principle was not adverse to the idea of being in a polygamous marriage, just not with Arwa’s husband. Recently Arwa broke the marriage contract, for reasons related to her child, technically making her divorced for the second time.  Nevertheless, the union was appealing because it was and would have continued to be a “loose” marriage — one that gave her the freedom to pursue her writing and the many social and political volunteer activities in which she was involved.
Amal is the head of a very large women’s social welfare organization in Sanaa. As in the previous cases, this volunteer position — which entails extensive fundraising efforts — is extremely time-consuming and demands a significant amount of responsibility. Last year, at a fundraising event of approximately 100 distinguished guests, she introduced a tall, striking elegant young woman to each of the women in the room. Dressed in an evening gown, with her long brown hair loose across her back, the second woman radiated youth and beauty. Amal, petite and, while attractive, beyond her physical prime, introduced her with the simple words: “This is the bride.” Smiling, the two seemed to be in high spirits. The young bride was to be Amal’s husband’s wife.
Author’s Note The author would like to thank the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the American Institute for Yemeni Studies for enabling her to conduct her research in Yemen. The stories are true encounters although the names have been changed.