By Sue Reid The Daily Mail:
Last updated at 10:03 PM on 24th February 2009
He cut a smart figure in his grey suit and crisply ironed shirt. The 6ft tall Somalian bowed to the judge, calling him ‘Sir’, before begging for his wife, Fatima, and their teenage son to be allowed to stay in Britain.
Fatima, with a black khimar veil covering her hair and shoulders, sat quietly next to her husband.
In her late 30s and wearing open sandals, she lowered her dark eyes as the details of the unconventional life she and her husband, Abdi, led in the West London suburb of Shepherd’s Bush unfolded at a busy immigration court.
Multiple marriages in Britain were first declared illegal in 1604
The judge listened in silence. Perhaps he knew from past experience what was coming next. Abdi went on to reveal that Fatima was not his only wife.
Indeed, he was a self-confessed bigamist who had a second, much younger wife and a 13-year-old daughter by her. They both lived nearby.
‘I visit them regularly,’ said Abdi, 51, who arrived in Britain in the 1990s and works in an old people’s home. ‘I have done nothing wrong. In Somalia, it is normal to have two wives – even three or four. Fatima is still my wife and she should not be deported.’
He was unable to produce wedding certificates or valid official documents to prove where, or when, he had married both women, therefore raising questions over the validity of the unions, under either Somali or British law.
Yet his story, unravelling at an ordinary weekday hearing at Taylor House, an asylum appeals’ centre in North London, is just one example of the growing phenomenon of multiple marriage in Britain.
Officially, such unions are punishable by up to seven years in prison. They were first declared illegal in England and Wales in 1604, when the Parliament of James I took action to restrain ‘evil persons’ marrying more than one wife. Parliament ruled that anyone found guilty of the crime would be sentenced to death.
In the four centuries since, bigamy (having two wives) and polygamy (more than two) has been frowned on by the state, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet it is clear that officialdom is turning a blind eye to such marriages.
A recent review by four Government departments – the Treasury, the Work and Pensions Department, the Inland Revenue and the Home Office – has concluded that 1,000 men in the United Kingdom are now polygamists, although some say the figure is higher.
What is more, the review found, a Muslim man can claim state support of more than £10,000 a year to keep his wives, if the wedding took place in one of those countries where polygamy is commonplace, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and across huge tracts of Africa.
For example, a man can receive &£92.80 a week in income support for wife number one, and a further £33.65p for each of his subsequent spouses.
Therefore, if he has four wives – the maximum permitted under Islamic teachings – he can claim nearly £800 a month from the British taxpayer.
Controversially, a polygamist is also entitled to more generous housing benefits and bigger council houses to reflect the large size of his family. He is also able to claim £1,000 a year in child benefit for each of his growing brood.
The Government insists that polygamy has declined in Britain since the 1988 Immigration Act, which made it harder for men to bring second, third or fourth wives to the UK.
However, it’s little wonder that critics claim our generosity simply encourages more Muslim men to keep several spouses. Supporters of polygamy claim the Koran states unequivocally that a Muslim man can marry up to four women so long as he treats them equally.
But the Taxpayers’ Alliance, a lobby group, has complained: ‘Polygamy is not officially condoned here, so why should British taxpayers have to pay for extra benefits for men to have two, three or four wives?’
Last week, Baroness Warsi, a Tory spokesperson for community cohesion who is British-born of Pakistani parents, waded into the argument, warning that politicians have failed to tackle the problem of polygamy because of ‘cultural sensitivity’.
The respected Muslim peer told the BBC: ‘We’ve just avoided either discussing or dealing with the matter head on.’
Baroness Warsi, a Muslim herself, urged the Government to bring in laws demanding the official registration of ‘Nikah’ or religious Islamic marriage ceremonies, which often take place secretly in private houses with ‘an imam and a couple of witnesses there’ – and which are used to get round our marriage laws.
So how do the polygamists get away with it here? Firstly, it needs to be understood that the generous benefits system allows any man and the partner he lives with to claim benefits together – even if the woman is not officially registered as his wife.
If they do marry, to avoid breaking Britain’s bigamy laws, such men often engage in a ceremony with their second or third wife in a Nikah secretly in their own homes and never register the union officially in this country.
Another technique is for the man to divorce his first wife under British law while continuing to live with her as his spouse under Islamic law. He then gets a visa for a new wife to enter the country and can legally marry her here.
Moreover, our politically correct immigration rules state that if a husband has divorced his first wife under British law – and even if that divorce is actually suspected to be part of a plan to set up a polygamous household – a second wife from abroad must be allowed to come and live here.
During this investigation, I spoke to health workers and benefits officers who have seen at first-hand the scale of polygamy in Britain.
An NHS district nurse working in Tower Hamlets, East London, explained that it was now commonplace. He said he knew of a Bangladeshi-born male patient with two wives and 13 children aged between three months and 15 years.
‘The women have council flats, each paid for by the local authority. The elderly husband collects benefits for both women, who are in their 30s. The wives speak very little English, but they are in and out of each other’s flats and are friends.
‘On more than one occasion when I have been called to the flats to give treatment to the old man, I have heard them talking in the kitchen and even taking each other’s children to the park.’
The male nurse said this family set-up was not unusual. ‘I know of others that comprise of one husband, a number of wives and numerous children.
‘It is not difficult to conclude that if there were no state benefits, a man could not afford to live like this, especially here in London.
‘The system is at fault. The men want more wives for their sexual pleasure, but also because it is lucrative.’
Yet there is another issue to be raised. Are the Government figures of around 1,000 foreign men living polygamously a gross underestimate?
Recently, a senior imam in Finchley, North London, said there are at least 4,000 men involved in such marriages.
Meanwhile, to show just how far some men have stretched the teaching of the Koran, another senior Islamist, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, has revealed a case of a man living here with five wives.
But what, indeed, of the wives living in polygamous marriages themselves?
In an age of supposed sexual equality, how can they accept what many will feel is the degradation that goes hand in hand with polygamy?
Not surprisingly, few dare to speak out publicly for fear that they will be ostracised by their families.
But one 34-year-old mother who lives in the Bangladeshi community of East London rang the Mail because she said she wants to reveal the truth of what is happening.
Sitting in her kitchen in Newham, she reeled off a list of male relatives and friends who have two or three wives.
What is more, the woman – who does not want to be named for fear of attacks on her and her family – said that polygamy is tacitly encouraged by our benefits system, where few questions are asked or checks made.
The woman, whom we will call Kaela, arrived in Britain with her mother and younger brother when she was 11.
They were following her father, who had come to Britain from a poor province called Sylhet, seeking work in the food factories of West London.
Kaela learned English, went to a local comprehensive and, at 19, fell in love with a Bangladeshi-born boy who had also arrived in this country as a youngster.
They married, set up home in a small council flat and soon had two children. Kaela worked hard for her family. With a clutch of GCSEs, she became an adviser to the Bangladeshi community on issues such as welfare, housing and education. She now works as a parttime civil servant.
Yet, two years ago, her husband suddenly disappeared back to Bangladesh and, in an Islamic Nikah ceremony, married a 19-year-old second wife who has since given birth to his son.
‘My husband has a British passport and plans to come back into this country with his two-year-old boy and his new wife.
‘He has not given me a penny. He knows that the State will provide for us. He has told me to tell the authorities I have been deserted and claim income support, housing benefit and council tax.’
But what of his second wife? Kaela suspects the shy teenager without any English will be brought into Britain on a tourist visa, pretending to be her own son’s nanny.
‘I have seen it happen before,’ Kaela explains. ‘I know of one man living in East London who has two wives here, each with a flat, and a third wife in Bangladesh. Between the wives, there are five children under 13, all living in this country.
‘The first two women look after the third wife’s child. So who pays to keep this enormous family? The State, of course.
‘I have an uncle who lives near Heathrow who has two wives. They are all together in a big five-bedroom house, with off-street parking. It is a council flat and the rent is paid from housing benefits because he does not work.
‘The first wife, who is 60, claims pension credit and carer’s allowance to look after his old mother, whom he has brought here as a dependent from Bangladesh.
‘His much younger second wife claims income support for herself and child benefits for their three children of school age. We are talking about hundreds of pounds a week to keep this family going.’
Kaela says there are myriad tricks used to bring second wives into Britain. Apart from the ‘nanny ruse’, new female partners enter the country using tourist visas, student visas or work permits. They simply overstay the visas, which are normally for six months, and stay in Britain, often hiding away in their husband’s home.
But women suffer as a result of polygamy, says Kaela. ‘The first wives get depressed because they are so ashamed of their husband taking a second or third wife.
‘Many wives have been here for years, but have never been allowed to learn English or even go out of the house alone. They have no one to turn to for help.’
No one knows such anguish better than Sameera, a well-spoken, middle-aged woman living in one of our multi-cultural cities, whose 55-year-old husband found a second wife after 30 years of marriage.
He went on holiday to his homeland of Pakistan where, without Sameera’s knowledge or consent, he married a 26-year-old cousin.
‘I fainted when I heard,’ says Sameera. ‘The fact that he’s married a girl young enough to be his daughter has upset me so much.
‘I cried. I felt like my mind was exploding. The ground had just fallen from me. Why did he do it? It shouldn’t happen.’
Astonishingly, though, Sameera has been forced to welcome the new wife into her house.
The alternative, she says, would be the breakdown of her relationship with her husband and, possibly, the loss of her home. In other words, she might be thrown on to the streets.
Yet despite such emotional cruelty, there are those who say polygamy should be legal in multicultural Britain. A leading Muslim academic at Cambridge University has claimed that men are biologically designed to desire more than one woman and that, therefore, polygamy should be legalised.
Meanwhile, a primary school teacher in Birmingham recently spoke publicly about his contented life with two wives and six children, all living in the same house.
Even a prominent female member of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain – set up in 1992 to debate Islamic issues – has claimed that she knows of many very happy polygamous marriages in Britain.
‘I am aware that this practice is taking place, and there are couples who are quite satisfied with their relationship, and they would like it to carry on and be protected by law,’ she proclaimed.
Back at the immigration appeals centre at Taylor House, which heard the case of Somali-born polygamist Abdi, a Home Office lawyer took me aside and whispered: ‘This man’s not the only husband doing this.
‘Last week, there was one man who was born in Pakistan and arrived to settle here only four years ago. He brought in one wife legally. They arrived as asylum seekers. The next wife came in on a student’s visa. The third pretended to be visiting relatives in Southwark, South London. She had a sixmonth tourist visa but overstayed and was about to be deported.
‘She ended up here, begging to remain in Britain with her husband.’
As for Abdi, I spoke to his son after the case adjourned as he waited for a bus with his mother, Fatima, while his father went back to work. The polite, intelligent-teenager is studying at college and hopes to become an engineer.
He came to Britain with his mother (who speaks only a few words of English) as asylum seekers from Somalia several years after Abdi had made the journey alone seeking a job, money and a better future.
‘I knew my father had a second wife,’ the teenager said with a friendly smile. ‘That is not unusual in Somalia. I want to stay in Britain, and so does my mother. Our lives should not be shattered because of this.’
But British taxpayers footing the bill may beg to disagree.