Zaib’s life began to unravel with an unexpected phone call from her husband in early 2018.
He told her he had married a second wife, an announcement that took the Toronto woman by surprise.
“I went into shock mode. I was in a state of denial, saying no, no, this can’t be happening. I started getting the symptoms of anxiety, depression and crying spells,” Zaib told CBC’s The Fifth Estate.
Zaib, whose last name CBC has agreed to withhold, said she got so sick her doctor recommended an extended leave of absence from work.
Zaib and other Canadian Muslim women in a similar predicament believe this could be their own #MeToo moment, an opportunity to speak out and demand an end to the practice of polygamy in Canada’s Muslim community.
“All the other women are quiet, not saying anything. Maybe if I say a thing or two, that will bring attention to this issue because this is the law and men are breaking it right, left and centre and nobody’s saying anything to them,” said Zaib.
She feels there should be accountability on the part of men.
“A man should know he cannot do that to a woman — you use her and then decide you’re going to have another fresh woman and you just leave her on the side like that.”
Determination to move on
Zaib’s husband tried to reassure her that he had no intention of abandoning her or their three adult children. Zaib said he told her: “I am going to still provide for you, take care of you and the kids. You can continue living the way you’re living and it’s just going to be one extended family.”
As the weeks went by, Zaib said she became increasingly convinced that her 26-year marriage was over. She was 19 when her parents arranged her marriage to her husband, who is 20 years her senior.
Looking back at her marriage, Zaib said she was happy. “Whatever was my destiny I got it.”
Zaib was born in Pakistan and her husband was born in India, but after their marriage in Saudi Arabia, they moved to Canada in the mid-1990s.
Zaib, who speaks multiple languages, found work as a translator in Toronto. But as employment opportunities for her husband dried up in Canada, he went to the United States in search of work and was away from the family for weeks at a time.
After she spent two months trying to figure out what to do with her life, Zaib’s husband returned to Toronto for a scheduled visit.
Realizing that Zaib was unwilling to accept his decision, he suggested they seek the counsel of their local imam. Zaib said the imam listened to both of them, but then told her husband that although Islamic law allowed polygamy, plural marriages are banned in Canada.
CBC reached out to Zaib’s husband, who is not being named to protect his wife’s identity, but did not receive a response.
In 2011, the B.C. Supreme Court upheld the section of the Criminal Code that prohibits polygamy as constitutional and ruled that the harm against women and children from polygamy far outweighs concerns over protecting religious freedom.
‘Unfair to women’
The Canadian Council of Imams, which represents the majority of imams in Canada, has declared that polygamous marriages, permitted according to the Qur’an, are nevertheless not valid because they are a violation of Canadian law.
The majority of Muslim jurists say a Muslim man is permitted to take up to four wives, but only if he can treat them all fairly and with justice.
In some Middle Eastern countries, polygamy is regulated and the second, third or fourth wife, has legal rights. But that’s not the case in Canada, says Imam Hamid Slimi of the Sayeda Khadija Centre in Mississauga, Ont.
“The way polygamy is practised today is unfair to women,” Slimi said.
In a recent sermon at his centre, Slimi told his congregation that polygamy “was permitted for a certain time and within a certain context in the past, hundreds of years ago, but here in Canada, it’s not allowed and 95 or 99 per cent of women don’t agree with this and I am talking about Muslim women.”
Although Slimi was head of the Canadian Council of Imams for more than a decade and has preached openly against the practice of polygamy in Canada, he admits that it continues.
It continues in part because an imam is not required to solemnize a marriage in the Islamic faith. Anyone with a basic requisite knowledge of the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions can officiate a nikah — or marriage — ceremony.
But Slimi insists that all nikahs or marriages, whether conducted by an imam or not, should be registered with the authorities to ensure that they comply with the law.
Zaib’s not alone
Over the last several months, a team at the The Fifth Estate talked to nearly a dozen women from the Greater Toronto Area, which has an extremely diverse population of more than half a million Muslims.
According to Statistics Canada, there are more than one million Muslims in Canada, but when it comes to polygamous marriages in the community, it is impossible to quantify because these marriages are most likely never registered.
The women The Fifth Estate spoke with are or were wives of Sunni imams and prominent community leaders and all share a common story to that of Zaib.
“I thought this doesn’t happen in Canada. It’s illegal and maybe there are some consequences, but to my surprise, when I went into the situation, I have a friend, I spoke with her and found out she’s getting a divorce because her husband [has] a second wife,” said Zaib.
The first wives who shared their story with CBC did so on condition that their identities not be revealed to protect themselves and their children from a potential backlash within the Muslim community.
When we were married, my husband told me his religious teacher said it was permissible for a man to lie to his wife about taking a second wife if the intention is to keep her happy and to keep the peace. – Alima
After 18 years of marriage and three children, Alima, not her real name, demanded her husband grant her a divorce after he confessed last summer that he had done a nikah to another woman. At the time, Alima found out the second wife was pregnant with her husband’s child.
“When we were married,” Alima said, “my husband told me his religious teacher said it was permissible for a man to lie to his wife about taking a second wife if the intention is to keep her happy and to keep the peace.”
After their divorce, Alima said, “I had to work on keeping my faith, otherwise, I may have lost it completely.”
Another woman, Kareema, a friend of Alima, is also struggling to keep her faith having experienced a similar ordeal. Kareema, not her real name, converted to Islam and got married to her husband in Toronto in 2000. After giving birth to the youngest of three children in 2016, Kareema said, her husband began having an affair.
“A prominent imam in Toronto advised him to marry (nikah) the woman to avoid commiting the sin of adultery,” said Kareema. “Instead of correcting the wrong that my husband was doing, the imam compounded it with another wrong.”
Kareema said she confronted the second wife and when her husband found out, he assaulted her. “It took two years for me to leave him.”
Kareema said the #MeToo movement has awakened her and Alima and although they wish to speak up, they remain afraid for their safety and the security of their children.
According to court records obtained by the The Fifth Estate, another prominent Toronto imam attacked his wife and sent her to hospital after she confronted him on his “secret nikah” to another woman. After years of marriage and two children, her marriage to him recently ended in a divorce.
‘I see nothing wrong with it’
Issa is a convert to Islam and a chef in Toronto who says he is open to the idea of taking a second wife, although he is well aware it is an offence punishable in Canada with up to a maximum of five years in prison.
“I see nothing wrong with it. It’s part of our religion. That’s why I am open to it and I accept it.”
Issa, who asked to be identified by his Muslim name, said when he married his wife in an Islamic ceremony, they agreed not to register their marriage, a legal requirement in Canada.
Issa mistakenly believes that when he eventually takes a second wife he cannot be accused of breaking the law since none of his marriages would be registered with the authorities.
When asked what his wife thinks of his decision, he said, “My wife’s a woman, so you know, most of the times women don’t like it, but she accepts it. She understands that this is our religion. This is what Allah has allowed for us, so she definitely accepts it.”
Finding second wives
It is not that difficult for men like Issa to find second wives. Several Muslim matrimonial websites have sprung up worldwide catering to men seeking polygamous relationships and to women who are open to such arrangements.
A producer with The Fifth Estate registered himself on two websites and was soon communicating with women who were interested in being a second wife.
One of the women who expressed an interest in a polygamous marriage was Haleemah, a Toronto-area resident and a convert to Islam.
Haleemah is single and divorced with two adult children. She said she would accept a polygamous marriage but with conditions.
“I have had Muslims ask me in the past, ‘Would you like to be a second wife?’ and I would say if I was in a polygamist marriage and the first wife was accepting of this, I would welcome her and help her in any way I can because I’ve been through raising a family,” she said.
Asked whether the illegality of polygamy was a concern for her, she said while she was aware it was illegal, “in some situations, I think some imams are willing to help.”
Some imams known to help men find second wives
Many of the women who told The Fifth Estate their husbands had taken second wives pointed out a number of imams in Ontario who are known to assist Muslim women like Haleemah in finding husbands who are already married, and who help match men like Issa to aspiring second wives.
The Fifth Estate wanted to put the rumours that were circulating in Toronto about some imams to the test and sent a married Muslim man undercover.
Of the six imams who were approached, two declined to perform a nikah ceremony for a married man. Two congratulated the undercover for his decision to take a second wife and recommended other Ontario imams whom they said would perform the nikah.
Two imams agreed to perform the nikah ceremony for the married undercover. One said it would cost $450 and suggested three locations in Toronto where the ceremony could take place.
The second imam, Aly Hindy, serves as the imam at the Salaheddin mosque in the east end of Toronto. He charges a standard fee of $200 for a nikah ceremony, regardless of whether it is a first, second or third marriage. He offered to supply the two male witnesses required by Islamic law.
After showing the undercover a copy of the marriage certificate he would receive, Hindy provided his own interpretation of Canadian law.
“We have no problem with the government because we are not going to register. If you register, then it is illegal, because you are already married.”
‘Let them sue me’
In an interview with The Fifth Estate, CBC’s Habiba Nosheen showed Hindy the undercover video of him agreeing to conduct a second marriage for a man who was already married and asked him for his reaction.
“So? Sue me. Let them sue me. We follow the law because we’re not registering a second marriage,” he said.
When asked to explain why he endorses the practice of polygamy in violation of Canadian law, he insisted the law should be changed.
When pressed for an explanation, Hindy described it as a “garbage law,” and said “eventually we’re going to recognize that there’s not enough men for each woman.”
“Many women will not be able to get married because there are not enough men because men die in wars, children die early and there are more boys than girls. Plus you also lose some number of men to homosexual marriages.”
Nosheen suggested the law will not change because people chose not to respect it, to which Hindy said, “OK, the law cannot be enforced.”
Enforcing the law
Toronto lawyer Sabha Hazai, who sits on the board of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, is spearheading a project aimed at educating Muslim women on their legal rights when getting married. She said the current law lacks teeth.
“It’s up to the lawmakers and it’s up to the courts now. How do they want to address polygamy? Are they going to start looking at enforcing the law? Are there going to be criminal prosecutions?
“Are there going to be convictions? Can you call the police and say: ‘My husband’s in a second marriage, please charge him for it?’ ”
The law has never been tested in respect to the practice of polygamy among Canadian Muslims.
When asked for his reaction to imams who perform polygamous marriages, Slimi was unequivocal.
“What upsets me is if we want to be part of Canada and call ourselves Canadian Muslims, we have to be part of this society.”
Polygamy, he said, “was permissible and it’s permissible in other countries, but it’s illegal here. The issue is not because I have a choice, I don’t have a choice.”
For women like Zaib, there is no compromise on the issue of polygamy in Canada.
“I’m going to be living the rest of my life with a burden and I know myself, I thought the best way, just let him go live his life and I’ll figure out my own life.”
With files from Habiba Nosheen and Tamar Weinstein