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Acceptance of Polygamy Slowly Changes in Muslim Africa

In some African Muslim countries, polygamy is still commonly practiced. According to certain interpretations of Islam, men can marry up to four women. But more and more African women in Muslim countries are saying they are not willing to be wife number two or three or four. In this first part of a five-part series on the changing African family, Phuong Tran brings us this report from Senegal about how some are questioning long-held traditions about marriage.

Penda Mbow teaches history of religion here at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop University. She tells her students they need to question polygamy from a religious point of view.

"Islam is used always to justify the question of polygamy. In my opinion, Islam does not encourage polygamy," she says. "In Africa, in Muslim countries, polygamy is a reality. I think it is more specifically African than Islam. "

Mbow says Islam's religious text, the Koran, makes it hard for a man to marry more than one woman by requiring that the man provide for each woman financially, and treat them all the same.

"I think it is not possible to treat all the women in the same way, [to] love them [equally]," she says. "Polygamy, in my opinion, should be the exception in Islamic society and not something you find all the time."

According to the 2005 Demographic and Health Survey for Senegal, about half of all marriages in Senegal are polygamous.

Djiby Diakhate, a sociologist who teaches at the National School of Social Work in Dakar, says one reason polygamy developed in early African culture was because of agriculture.

"Polygamy was more respected before because men needed women to cultivate the land," said Diakhate. "The more wives, the more respect a man had. Now with the mechanization of society, there is less societal pressure to marry."

Religion professor Penda Mbow says even though there is less pressure than before, women still feel pressure to agree to polygamy.

University graduate Mya, 22, is from Dakar and says she is willing to be in a polygamous marriage. She says it is hard for a woman to find a man who will agree to limit himself to one wife.

Mya says she is not against polygamy, as long as she has her own home and space from the other wives. She adds men in Senegal have the right to be with more than one woman. She says if she did not agree to polygamy, her husband would have mistresses.

But far from Dakar in the mostly rural town of Fatick, 19-year-old Soda Samb wrinkles her nose when asked whether she agrees to be one of many wives. Samb says she wants to be in a monogamous marriage where she is the only wife because she says there are more problems between families in polygamous marriages. She adds that even though her parents, who are in a polygamous marriage, support her dream to be a lawyer or judge, they will not agree for her to be in a monogamous marriage.

Codou Bop is a Senegalese women's right activist who says it may take another generation, or longer, for Senegalese society to reject polygamy even though many people privately oppose it. She says most Senegalese women are not ready to fight the tradition because of their struggles in other areas like access to education and employment.

"Struggling against polygamy is not yet a priority when you consider all the problems they have to tackle - the economic, the social, the political level," she says.

The laws of most African countries with significant numbers of Muslims allow polygamy, with different conditions. For example, Somalia requires court permission and proof a man's first wife is infertile or imprisoned.

Standing out in Muslim Africa is Tunisia, whose first post-colonial president Habib Bourguiba prohibited polygamy.