State Promises to Enforce Anti-polygamy Law, Arab Women’s Groups Are Skeptical

It is illegal to have more than one spouse in Israel; convicted offenders can be sent to five years in jail, though the law is rarely enforced.

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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Credit: AFP

Immediate steps will be taken to enforce the law against polygamy, which is mainly practiced in Israel by Bedouin, the justice minister and attorney general announced on Wednesday.

‘[We] plan to act on a number of levels to eradicate the phenomenon, which undermines the foundations of public order in an enlightened society, and in many cases harms women and children, who are subject to neglect and poverty,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said in a statement. “This decision follows a series of discussions with relevant professionals and data that have accumulated in recent years about the scope of the phenomenon and its consequences.”

Criminal enforcement will be the primary measure used. It is illegal to have more than one spouse in Israel, and convicted offenders can be sent to prison for up to five years. The law is rarely enforced, however.

Weinstein said he will instruct government authorities finding evidence of possible polygamy to alert law enforcement agencies. He added that disciplinary action will be taken against civil servants who violate the anti-polygamy law. The guidelines will also be sent to the country’s sharia courts, which adjudicate in matters of Islamic law.

“Criminal enforcement is the first step in the campaign,” Shaked said. “Combating the phenomenon requires a combination of numerous government agencies cooperating with civilian officials, who will enlist welfare services, education and public information.” She added that the benefits and incentives given by the government to violators must be stopped.

Representatives of Arab women’s advocacy organizations expressed skepticism about the campaign’s likely effectiveness. “Polygamy is already illegal, but it’s hard to prove that a man is married to more than one woman,” said Safa Shehada, the director of Ma’an – the Forum of Arab Women’s Organizations in the Negev.

She said the way to fight polygamy is through education. “We have to change the attitudes and perceptions of young people, starting in the schools,” she said. “The Education Ministry has to raise awareness. Without that, polygamy won’t stop.”

Attorney Rawia Aburabia of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel agrees with Shehadeh, saying that women without power and their children are likely to be harmed by sanctions, for example if their main breadwinner is imprisoned or the state suspends their child allowances.

“I’m suspicious about the justice minister’s announcement, given her positions on the Arab population and Bedouin in particular,” Aburabia said. “I wonder how concerned she is about Bedouin woman and children, and whether this isn’t coming from a security perspective and a desire to reduce birthrates.” She said that if Shaked really wants to reduce polygamy, “She should meet with the women’s groups and hear their positions and recommendations.”

Aburabia said that instead of sanctions that would harm women, there should be stricter supervision of sharia courts that perform marriages even when they know the man is already married. “The state also has to encourage women’s education and employment to help eradicate the phenomenon,” she said.

According to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, if an Israeli man marries a second Israeli woman and produces a verified marriage certificate, the woman will be registered as married. According to police, 36 percent of marriages in the Bedouin community are polygamous. Only a small number of men report their additional marriages to the Interior Ministry, however, so the true extent of the phenomenon isn’t knows. In 2005 the population authority registered 18 polygamous marriages that had taken place in Israel and six more that had taken place abroad.

According to a study several years ago by the Knesset Research Center, in 2004 there were 13 investigations into polygamous relationships and 21 in 2005. Convicted offenders were sentenced to community service or prison terms of up to 18 months. Police representatives told the Knesset researchers the limited enforcement of the anti-polygamy law derived from “difficulty enforcing the law and a perception by some law enforcement officials that polygamy is an accepted institution in Bedouin society and shouldn’t be fought.”

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