BEIT FAJJAR, WEST BANK — Abdel Rahim Thawabta, portly and sun-burnished from years of work in the open-air stone-cutting factories of this West Bank village, was invited by a friendly co-worker to lunch.
At the humble home in the nearby village, Mr. Thawabta took one look at his friend's younger sister and fell hard. But Hanan, a darkly exotic beauty, was just 15. So Thawabta began pursuing her - and continued for nearly three years, charming Hanan and her family with compliments and marriage proposals. Finally, with her father's consent, Hanan said "yes" to Thawabta's proposal.
It's a typical love story, except for one thing: Thawabta was still married to his wife of 20 years, Mariam. He had wed Mariam at age 16 in a family-arranged marriage and he had 11 children with her.
But to him, that wasn't a problem. Here in this village of about 20,000 near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, polygamy is legal, and divorce is so shameful that none of the three parties even discussed it.
"God despises divorce, so that was not an option," says Thawabta. He explains that had they divorced, because of Islamic customs, Mariam would have been required to leave his house, her children, and would have forfeited most financial support.
Thawabta and about 20 percent of the men in his village, according to local estimates, maintain that the Koran provides the framework for polygamy.
Although it's not widespread here nor in most corners of the Islamic world, the continued existence of polygamy in some regions is seen in reformist circles as a kind of state-sanctioned subjugation of women that should be eliminated.
Whether to delegitimize polygamy is just one of many legal dilemmas facing a changing Arab world. The status of women has emerged as the core of a human rights agenda being pushed not only by Western rights groups, but by domestic constituencies increasingly atuned, wired, and networked to the living standards of their counterparts abroad.
*Morocco, now led by the young King Mohammed VI, is heatedly debating a government-proposed package of women's rights that includes a ban on polygamy, raising the minimum age of marriage from 14 to 18, and giving women equal inheritance rights.
Jordan, also led by a new, young king, is proposing to revoke laws that provide slap-on-the-wrist penalties to men convicted of honor killings. (See Asma Khader, right.)
In the Gulf state of Qatar, the Supreme Council on Family Affairs is reviewing the country's family-status laws, and looking for ways it can ensure women more rights in divorce and inheritance disputes.
And in Lebanon, ostensibly one of the most liberal countries for women in the Middle East, human rights groups are lobbying politicians to pass laws permitting civil marriage and divorce.
Grass-roots efforts for change
Here in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a society still in flux amid peace negotiations with Israel, Palestinians are drafting legislation that they hope will start their hoped-for state off a few steps ahead of their more established Arab neighbors.
If a coalition of reform groups - led by Mashriqiyat (Eastern women) in Gaza City and the Women Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Jerusalem - have their way, almost everything about the Thawabta homes' foundations would be illegal.
Mashriqiyat, which is preparing a draft bill to present to the Palestinian legislative council later this year, wants to ban polygamy and to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18.
"These are stupid people who would try to outlaw this. They don't consider that a man might be happier with a second wife," says Thawabta, sitting inside the smooth, white-stone home he recently built to accommodate his second family. "Islam accepts more than one marriage, as long as I can support them both financially and maintain their rights."
Skeptics throughout the Islamic world, however, say it is almost impossible for a man to be fair to more than one spouse. More progressive critics go further: from the left-leaning government in Morocco to reformists in the Palestinian territories, officials and activists in some corners of the Arab world are trying to outlaw polygamy altogether, as was done in Tunisia in the 1970s.
"Polygamy goes against the dignity of all women," says Sama Aweidah, the director of the Women Studies Center in East Jerusalem. "It's a woman's right to be a full wife, and not a half or a third or a fourth."
"At first, Mariam rejected the idea of me taking another wife," says Thawabta, sipping mint tea at home No. 2. "I gave her a choice. I offered ... to spend one night with her and one night with Hanan, but she refused."
Instead, wife No. 1 told him he should stay with wife No. 2 full time, and showed her acceptance by cooking the wedding meal and preparing baths for the newlyweds, who honeymooned upstairs.
Home No. 1
At home No. 1, just a short drive from home No. 2 toward the center of town, Thawabta bangs on the door for Mariam, wife No. 1, to open up. He has no key of his own.
His wife of 32 years wears a crisp white headscarf secured below her chin with a pink clip. Smiling nervously, she invites her husband and his guests upstairs while she fetches tea and fresh pears. When she settles down to talk, she acts much like a divorce relieved to be rid of her husband.
The focal point of the living room, however, is a large picture of Thawabta taken at the time of their marriage. "I was happy when he told me he would marry again," says Mariam, with a small grin and a shrug.
"You were crying!" says her husband.
"No, I wasn't crying," Mariam protests. "I respect my husband, so I agreed."
But she says a law to prohibit polygamy is a good idea. "Yes, it would be better to have such a law," says Mariam, speaking in a lowered tone when her husband seems distracted by a call on his cellphone. "I think it's good, what they [reformers] are doing, but if a man wants to marry, he will do it whether it's illegal or not. I wouldn't want my son to take a second wife, but if he wants to, I can't stop him. This is religion. You cannot change it."
Said Hamid, a lawyer for Mashriqiyat who is drafting proposals for a new Palestinian personal-status law, says rights groups like his are trying to encourage different interpretations of the Koran. He argues that not everything that is mentioned in the Koran is necessarily endorsed as an everyday practice.
During the Prophet Mohammed's lifetime, successive wars created a shortage of men, as well as widows and orphans. According to some scholars, the counsel was meant as an admonition to take care of the women among them. "The reformists within Islam say this text can go either way," says Mr. Hamid. "It went the wrong way, and I'm going to take this potential for abuse out of our interpretation."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society