As we were chatting Z and I got on to the topic of marriage. She mentioned that she already had children when she started working on her Ph.D. While her husband was supportive he was a traditional (Moslem or Malay) husband. That is, she handled the child care and house cleaning. Her comments led to a conversation on ethnic and gender roles – specifically roles. She said that in one her classes a student from Saudi Arabia observed that Saudi men cook (or at least her husband cooks). Apparently in his writings the Prophet said something to the effect that cooking/preparing food was men’s work. (Sorry that I am not precise – I never thought to take notes. After all I was there to say hello and have a friendly conversation.) This aspect of Islam has not taken hold in Malaysia, but at least one Muslim staff member had a husband who stayed at home and took care of the house and children.
Z. observed that she knew a number of Asian women who had married Caucasian men. She speculated that the Asian women wanted a spouse who did not expect them to conform to traditional roles. We were less successful in coming up with a reason why the men married Asian women – perhaps they are less aggressive than Western women. I suspect that it is also a matter of opportunity.
One cannot talk of marriage in Malaysia without considering polygamy. When I was in Malaysia in 1971 I stayed with a woman whose neighborhoods included man’s two wives. As I recall I was told that they fought loudly and often. A few years later we were on a small boat crossing Lake Toba. An Indonesian pointed out Malaysian men who came aboard with his wives carrying this and that and he carried nothing. Among more catty persons the belief was that the men depended on the earning of their wives.
Last year when I was visiting Sisters in Islam I spoke with M. about polygamy. While polygamy was permissible to Muslim men they have to treat their wives equally. She noted that was impossible especially if one went beyond the equality of resources. For example, one may think about who is there to comfort or care for an ill spouse. Just as all unhappy families differ (Tolstoy’s observation) all polygamous unions probably have their own dynamics. I thought that maybe second wives got the worse end of the bargain, but it probably depends on if the wife lives in the “neighborhood” or “in a different port.” Z. said that the Kanita at USM had done a study of first wives and found that they lost resources (financial and emotional) when the husband took a second wife.
For a different point of view I have had conversations with women who grew up in Africa. They observed that marrying a second wife rather than divorcing the first provided the latter woman as she aged.