The Men with Many Wives: An insight into polygamy in Britain

The new Channel 4 documentary looks at the estimated 20,000 polygamous marriages thought to have taken place within the British Muslim community

Hasan Phillips is a busy man. In between managing his business, and running a charity that’s spreading the word of Islam, he has the not insignificant job of keeping his wives happy. The plural is correct. Phillips has three wives.

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They’re not, of course, wives in the eyes of the law – that would be bigamy. But these arrangements are part of an estimated 20,000 polygamous marriages thought to have taken place within the British Muslim community. 

Not, it seems, that the women have any problem with sharing their man. On the contrary, Hasan’s second wife married him precisely because he did already have another woman in his life. “I’d rather be in a polygamous marriage, with someone who knows how to be a husband,” says Nibila.

We’re sitting in the north London flat he shares with Nibila and their two young sons. He isn’t, of course in permanent residence – he divides his time between here, and houses in south London and Birmingham, where his other two wives live. 

Hasan, 32, is an instantly likeable person; easy to ask a frank question, open and secure. But what I honestly never figured out was what he needed all these wives for. Other men in the documentary were much more thunderous about how they had to have multiple wives to be true to their religion. Hasan, on the other hand, describes having three families as “keeping plates in the air”; he is plainly delighted by how much in demand he is.

Nibila, 35, was doing a PhD at Cambridge – she did her bachelor’s degree in Malaysia and MA in Australia – when she met Hasan, and decided to chuck it in and become his second wife. She never wore a niqab (veil), but after marrying him wears both a niqab (pictured opposite) and long black gloves. She says by way of explanation: “I wanted to wear one before I got married – being married to Hasan has given me the opportunity to wear one and be steady at it. The only prejudice I have met so far has been from other Muslims.”

I imagined, as you would, that there was some romantic encounter, a love-at-first-sight event that made it impossible for her to carry on at university. But the “meeting” took place on an Islamic marriage-brokering website. She ticked the box saying she wanted a man who was already married. And he was certainly that, with a wife, Sakinah, in south London, who had agreed to his finding someone else. Hasan explains: “She had a meeting with Nibila before I had a meeting, and came back and said, ‘Yeah, y’know, she has characteristics that would suit us.’

“So we had a brief chat and decided to go forward,” as if they were a pair of entrepreneurs (which they also are – they make their living, and support his other families, with the business they run, selling “Arabian luxuries”). 

Hasan insists he didn’t want Nibila to give up her studies. She says, simply, she had decided that she didn’t want both a husband and a career. “Even when I was working, me and my friends were saying we want to be mothers, we want to be at home. That was my aim. I wasn’t going for a very career-oriented life.”

So why did Nibila tick that box in the first place? Why didn’t she, for instance, look for a man to marry who was single? She had already been married, in a disastrous union to a man who took off a few days after they wed. “He just disappeared. It was an arranged marriage, but the whole family knew him. I think maybe he wasn’t ready for a commitment, was he?

“That actually made me more aware of polygamy. I’d rather be in a polygamous marriage with someone who knows how to be around, than with someone I don’t know where he is.”

With Hasan, she always knows where he is, because he’s always on his way to or from one of his relationships. Aside from his first wife,33, and Nibila, he is also the main carer for the chil- dren from his first marriage (which ended in divorce), and has a third wife, 41, in Birmingham, with whom he doesn’t have children, but she has a teenage son. He divides his time equally between the three. Still, one cannot help but observe that he gets all of them, whereas they only get one third of him. Nibila doesn’t mind.

“I’m not the jealous type of person, if I do get jealous it’s usually his fault. If any problem happens between co-wives it’s usually his fault. Praising somebody too much. ‘Why don’t you be more like her, she’s this, she’s that. If he didn’t say that, we would all be happy.”

“I’ll raise my hand to that,” he says cheerfully. “When I’m not around, they get along wonderfully, like real sisters.”

It’s hard to pin down the nature of these rela- tionships. The assumption is that they all come from one particular interpretation of Islam, shared by a particular branch of the faith. The truth is a much more fractured picture of people whose reasons for embracing polygamy are intensely personal and idiosyncratic.

Hasan’s polygamy seems to be a way of recon- ciling the person he was – raised in a Christian household in south London he converted to Islam at the age of 16 – with the person he became after he found Allah.

“All of those things I used to be or have or be involved with, I feel like it’s been replaced. I used to have girlfriends, now I’ve got wonderful wives. I don’t have to be ducking and diving. We have houses, we have cars, we have kids, we have education, we have community. We’re quite happy,” says Hasan. And the wives?

Some featured in the documentary seem miserable, victims of the arrangement rather than participants. Nibila – with her own history that she’s trying to eradicate – does not. But who can say? For every 60 sentences a man says, in this film, a woman might say two. But in a relationship so asymmetrical, how can you ever really know who thinks what? 

Is polygamy permitted in Islam?

-Bigamy is a criminal offence in the UK, with a maximum seven-year jail term. To avoid this, Muslim men already legally married and who want to take another wife have a religious ceremony known as a nikah, which is not registered as a civil marriage, but is conducted by clerics from the local mosque. 

As a result, women married only under the nikah are not protected by British divorce laws; instead they rely on locally applied sharia law for rulings on dispersal of assets. 

–Despite the perception that the taking of multiple wives is promoted within Islam, most interpretations of the Koran insist that monogamy is the basis for normal relationships. Polygamy, it says, is only allowed in cases involving marrying the mothers of orphans so that the orphans are taken care of. In such cases a maximum of four wives is allowed. 

Polygamy is also practised widely within the Mormon faith. Much less common is polyandry — women being allowed multiple husbands. It is not permitted within Islam or Mormonism,but is found in some parts of Tibet. 

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The Men with Many Wives is on Wednesday 24th September at 10pm on Channel 4