TRIPOLI, Libya — It was just a passing reference to marriage in a leader’s soberly delivered speech, but all week it has unsettled women here as well as allies abroad.
In announcing the success of the Libyan revolution and calling for a new, more pious nation, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, also seemed to clear the way for unrestricted polygamy in a Muslim country where it has been limited and rare for decades.
It looked like a sizable step backward for women at a moment when much here — institutions, laws, social relations — is still in play after the end of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.
In his speech, Mr. Abdel-Jalil declared that a Qaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, which is a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, for instance, had kept polygamy rare here.
“This law is contrary to Shariah and must be stopped,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil told the crowd, vowing that the new government would adhere more faithfully to Shariah. The next day he reiterated the point to reporters at a news conference: “Shariah allows polygamy,” he said. Mr. Abdel-Jalil is known for his piety.
He also remarked cryptically, “We will not abolish any law.”
Still, some women here saw the collective remarks of the chairman of the Transitional National Council as a menacing sign that the new Libya would mean new repression. Human-rights lawyers also viewed the comments as a clearly aimed swipe at the Qaddafi law on marriage, as did a scholar of Islamic law at the University of Tripoli.
Libya experts abroad saw the leader’s foray as a political effort aimed at placating newly influential Islamists. “He and the other leaders are not quite certain which way this is going to turn,” said Dirk J. Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. “They are hedging their bets. The worrisome thing is he mentioned these things, which take him outside the mainstream.”
Abroad, the reaction was one of dismay among allies whose military firepower ensured Colonel Qaddafi’s fall. ...
There was disquiet that Mr. Abdel-Jalil had zeroed in on the marriage issue in a relatively brief speech. Unprompted, the young women circulating in a university courtyard angrily brought up his comments.
... Unlike in its African Muslim neighbors to the south, where multiple-wife family compounds are frequently seen, polygamy has hardly been part of the essential fabric of daily life here. Under Colonel Qaddafi, there was a notion that polygamous marriages were the exception, said Azza Kamel Maghur, a lawyer here. Apart from the wife’s consent — delivered in front of a judge — a man had to give reasons for taking another wife.
Like other women here, Ms. Maghur, whose father was briefly foreign minister under Colonel Qaddafi, was sharply critical of the country’s temporary leader for proposing fundamental changes during a period of transition. “Women gained rights in the 1970s,” she said. “We don’t want to lose them.” ...
In Benghazi on Friday, several hundred men staged a demonstration in support of Mr. Abdel-Jalil and demanded that his prescriptions be carried out. ...
You notice how no guy ever says in one of these articles: "Hey, under polygamy, I'd probably wind up a lonely bachelor, so I'm against polygamy!"? Are guys really that dumb that they don't get the basic math? I'm sure that Mustafa Abdel-Jalil and his male relatives will do very well for themselves in the marriage market as long as he's head of government, but what about men as a whole? How do more men wind up better off if some men get to have four wives?
This sort of speech might almost make you skeptical about the motivations of elites. But if average Libyan guys start being cynical about the motivations of Mustafa Abdel-Jalils call for more polygamy, then average Americans might someday stop believing that the reason Bill Gates is always calling for more immigration is not because he's in favor of more equality, and start wondering if its because he's in favor of more inequality. If this kind of bad attitude is allowed, Southerners might start to imagine Jefferson Davis had ulterior motives in favoring slavery and secession.
Anyway, making the law more favorable to polygamy probably won't have much impact statistically because the truth is that outside of tropical hoe agriculture economies where the women do most of the work, large numbers of men can't afford to have a lot of wives. The irony is that this is especially true in Islamist cultures where the women have to be kept out of sight. Wives can't very easily be bringing home the bacon if they can't drive and have to be escorted everywhere by male relatives and have to wear awkward tent-like clothes that they have to grasp with one hand at all times.