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Muslim Leaders Call for Australia to Recognize Polygamy

Some senior leaders of the Islamic community in Sydney are calling on the Australian government to recognize polygamous marriage on cultural grounds. Bigamy and polygamy are illegal in Australia but clerics say some Muslims circumvent the law by forming unions in religious ceremonies that are not state sanctioned. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Several Muslim clerics say that polygamous marriages, although illegal, exist in Australia and that they often are asked to perform wedding ceremonies even though the groom already is married.

Few, however, will admit to conducting polygamous weddings.

Community leaders say that a small number of Muslim men, mainly from Egypt, Jordan or Sudan, had immigrated with two or more wives, although their multiple marriages are not recognized under Australian law.

The clerics now ask whether the laws should be changed to allow polygamist unions on religious or cultural grounds.

Keysar Trad, the president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, believes the law should be changed.

"We, as a society, should say okay well if this woman has willfully chosen to enter into this relationship, make a lifelong commitment to this person, to be married, it shouldn't matter," Trad said. "If it was a business and the business had four partners, we'd recognize that. But why don't we recognize it when it comes to consensual relationships amongst adults?"

The Koran allows men to have up to four wives if all can be supported equally.

Researchers at Sydney University think there is little appetite, though, among the broader Islamic community in Australia for men to be allowed to have more than one wife.

The Australian government is firmly against the idea, too.

The Attorney-General's office says the government is not considering amending the laws, or in any way recognizing polygamous marriage.

Those pushing for new laws have pointed out that polygamy unofficially exists in traditional Aboriginal communities in Australia's Northern Territory - and that these relationships are recognized when the government grants welfare benefits.

Similar arrangements exist in the United Kingdom. Earlier this year the British government said it would grant welfare benefits to all spouses in a polygamous marriage, if the marriages had taken place in countries where the polygamy is legal.