Polygamy in Urban Malaysia – University of Copenhagen

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Polygamy in Urban Malaysia: Gender, Islam and the Production of Elites

Ph.d. thesis by Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, England, 2003

The project is financed by the Danish Research Agency

Superviser: Dr. Leo Howe, Dept. of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

The thesis is about urban elite Malay polygamy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is primarily ethnographic, in describing and analysing polygamy as an (emerging) elite institution in contemporary urban Malaysia. The ethnographic analysis centres around three main themes. Firstly, urban elite polygamy is about gender. Mostly women's views and narratives on polygamy were collected, and for women the threat of polygamy continually influenced their perception and management of marriage. Particularly polygamy’s perceived creation of inequality and power differentials in spousal relations is causing profound changes in urban Malay gender relations. The main focal point of this thesis is thus how women perceive and deal with polygamy, whether actual or imagined, as well as its effects on gender relations. Secondly, urban elite polygamy is about Islam. A Malay man’s right to polygamy is based on Islam, which conditionally allows a man up to four wives. But conflicts arise over men’s rhetorical use of Islam to justify their polygamy which stands in sharp contrast to their actual obedience of its tenets when engaging in polygamy. A second focal point of this thesis is thus how Islamic norms and ideals, as well as laws, are used and manipulated by men and women involved in polygamy. Thirdly, urban elite polygamy is about elites. The new emerging (upper) middle-classes among contemporary urban Malays are appropriating traditional signs of wealth and rank by engaging in a practice which used to be the domain of the rulers and the powerful. Through polygamy, they signal their aspiration to be the new ruling classes. As such, polygamy has become part of urban elite social reproduction. A third focal point of this thesis is thus the “(re)production of elites” though polygamy.