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Department of Social Anthropology


Dr Nurul Huda Mohd Razif (Leiden University)

The Death of a Polygynist, and Its Aftermath in a Malaysian Syariah Court

The unexpected passing of a Malay polygamist without a clear will threw his four surviving widows and 33 children into a state of utter turmoil. Divided loyalties between the wives and their children and unfair property claims threaten to unravel the bonds of kinship once held together by the deceased patriarch. An intervention by Shariah law in court was considered altogether necessary to mediate these competing claims for resources, to ensure that the rights and interests of one wife and her children are protected at the cost of another’s. Drawing on my court observations of this family’s trials in a Malaysian Shariah High Court in the northeastern Malaysian state of Kelantan, I illustrate the fragile nature of familial unity in Malay polygamy, and the ways in which the absence of the husband-father figure drastically reconfigures – if not entirely ruptures – existing kin relations. I suggest that the fragility of Malay polygamy is in some ways a result of an implicit support of patriarchal interests inherently woven into the state itself: although the Malaysian Shariah system claims to be a benevolent protector of the rights of women and children, it also enforces minimal legal restrictions on men’s access to polygamy. The Malaysian state must now deal with the consequences of patriarchal privilege, and its attempt to maintain equality and fairness between the wives in polygamy leaves much to be desired. 

Friday, 1 March, 2019 - 16:15 to 18:00
Event location: 
Edmund Leach Room, Department of Social Anthropology Free School Lane, Cambridge