Hasan Suroor

Twenty-three year-old Sahar Daftary, whose parents migrated from Afghanistan, was a successful model and became quite famous in Britain’s Asian fashion circles after being crowned “Miss Face of Asia” last year. On December 20, she died after mysteriously falling from the balcony of a twelfth-floor luxury apartment in Manchester.

It was reported that the apartment belonged to her estranged husband Rashid Jamil (33), a property developer, from whom she was seeking divorce after discovering that he already had a wife when he married her last year in a religious ceremony. She had reportedly gone to the apartment to collect her belongings. Mr. Jamil, who was also there at the time, was arrested, but released on bail.

At first, it seemed like another story of love, marriage and deception but then it emerged that actually Ms Daftary had been a victim of Muslim men’s supposed “right” to have more than one wife—in other words, polygamy which Islam permits under certain circumstances but is illegal in most countries, including several Muslim states such as Tunisia, Turkey and some Central Asian republics.

There is something slightly unreal about the idea that an educated and modern man, who grew up in a Western society, can be so culturally regressive at a time when polygamy is rare even among conservative Muslims. Muslims elsewhere have moved on—but clearly not in Britain. Bizarrely, Mr. Jamil reportedly claimed that he had done nothing wrong; his only mistake was that he didn’t tell Sahar about his previous marriage.

According to Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, chairman of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain which campaigns for reforms in the Muslim community, polygamy is “quite common” among British Muslims. It is particularly common among the Muslims from countries where it is not banned such as Saudi Arabia and Somalia, he says.

“Our organisation is trying to create awareness but nothing can be achieved without the cooperation of clerics. They are the main obstacle. We’ve had discussions with them but unfortunately they don’t understand. They seem to live on another planet altogether,” he told The Hindu.

The case will reinforce the already widespread negative perceptions about Asian cultural practices many of which, the government says, are in conflict with British values. Only last week, the government intervened to rescue Humayra Abedin , a young doctor from Bangladesh, who had alleged that she was tricked by her parents into travelling to Dhaka, tortured and forced to marry a total stranger, reigniting the debate on the prevalence of forced marriages among Asian immigrants.

There is no reliable estimate of how widespread polygamy is among British Muslims (according to one estimate, there are some 1,000 polygamous couples) but clearly the problem exists, even if, as some believe, it is exaggerated. And if the community does not wake up to it—and fast—the government might be forced to intervene as it has done to clamp down on forced marriages.

* * *

An over-reaction?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the same effect on most Western liberals and governments as the proverbial red rag has over a bull. So, no brownie points for guessing for what happened after Britain’s controversially irreverent Channel 4 invited him to deliver its traditional “alternative” Christmas Day message this year. The programme, intended to provide a “light-hearted touch” to the occasion, is the channel’s “answer” to the Queen’s official message broadcast on BBC.

The Foreign Office was livid and issued a strongly worded statement, condemning the decision; rights campaigners said they were “outraged”; and Israel’s Ambassador to London Ron Prosor called it “perverse.”

The Channel, however, argued that as the leader of one of the most powerful Muslim states, President Ahmadinejad’s views were “enormously influential.”

“As we approach a critical time in international relations, we are offering our viewers an insight into an alternative world view,” it said.

President Ahmadinejad, on his part, carefully avoided saying anything controversial, except making a general reference to “bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers,” leaving it the viewers to draw their own inference about who these powers were.

In a remarkably restrained address, which must have disappointed his critics, he spoke about the significance of Christmas and Christ’s love for humankind.

“If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly He would hoist the banner of justice and love for humanity to oppose warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over,” he said.

So, what was the fuss all about?

* * *


As tributes to Harold Pinter, the distinguished British playwright and Nobel Laureate who died last week, continue to pour in, his biographer Michael Billington wrote about his “fierce concern for language.” He recounted a story told to him by a friend of Pinter’s to show that one couldn’t afford to “waste words in Pinter’s presence.”

Apparently, Pinter and his friend went out for a drink at a posh hotel in Dublin, and as they placed their orders, an “over-enthusiastic” waitress kept saying “No problem, no problem.”

After a while, Pinter looked at her “levelly” and said: “I wasn’t anticipating one.”