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Egyptian Soap Opera Sparks Controversy Over Polygamy - 2002-01-02


Millions of Egyptian men and women - young and old, poor and wealthy - spent Ramadan and the month of December avidly watching a televised soap opera comedy about a rich, balding Egyptian shop owner with four wives. Egyptian feminists were outraged, calling the program degrading to women and to Islam.

The program was called The Family of the Haj Metwalli. It attracted a huge audience every night during Islam's most holy month of Ramadan and through December.

It depicted a wealthy fabric shop owner, Haj Metwalli, who was married to four wives - all of whom he housed in separate, luxury apartments on different floors of the same building.

He visited each wife based on a strict schedule. He was kind and generous to each. Three of the wives were shown to share friendship, even dancing at each other's weddings. A fourth, younger wife was depicted as being in relentless pursuit of her husband's fortune.

Even though the comedy program is no longer being broadcast, it caused a fierce debate among Egyptian sociologists, psychologists, women's groups and religious organizations about the issue of polygamy and its relationship to Islam.

According to government figures, less than three percent of Egyptian men have more than one wife and only a fraction of those men are married to four wives.

Even so, Sociology Professor Saneeya Saleh of the American University in Cairo and a member of Egypt's National Council for Women, said the show was degrading to women. She says her concern is the show's potential impact on children and less educated women.

"Many of the women - especially the undereducated women, the poor women who get all of their education from TV - they think this is [reality]. And the kids, they think this is it. Why not more than one wife? ... So it is a role model to those who do not know better," he says.

The Muslim holy book, the Koran, indicates a man may marry up to four wives, but only under certain, very specific, circumstances. It allows an existing wife to divorce her husband if she opposes an additional marriage.

The Koran also says a man must be able to treat his wives equally. That is a near impossibility, says Sa'id Sadek, a sociologist and Egyptian public-opinion expert. "Islam does not permit marrying more than one woman unless you are fair to all of them, and this is very difficult if you are really pious, because you can never be fair to four women. You do not have the resources, the energy, the money, the attention that you would give and distribute equally to all these women," he says.

Mr. Sadek says the outpouring of anger the television show caused suggests there is widespread Egyptian opposition to religious fundamentalism.

Mr. Sadek says the political climate added to the show's controversy because it aired during Ramadan and at a time Islam finds itself on the defensive, following the September 11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent military operations in Afghanistan.

Television is extremely popular in Egypt. Sociologist Saneeya Saleh says even in the poorest villages many would rather forgo things like furniture in order to have a television. She says television often has a huge influence on the lives of many Egyptians.

"They get all of their education from the television, so the television is like a thought. It can teach them a lot and it can destroy them a lot. We have to be very careful with the TV. You can really change attitudes through television," she says.

On the last episode of The Family of the Haj Metwalli, the husband suffers a heart attack after taking an overdose of a drug to improve sexual potency. Haj Metwalli warns his eldest son about the difficulty of being fair to more than one wife and urges his son to marry only once.

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