France: The state of polygamy
In an apartment in the dilapidated Paris suburb of La Courneuve, lives Goma. Goma was born in the Comoros, a group of islands between Africa and Madagascar. He's married to Hamida, who also came from there. He's very happy with her. But Goma is furious when he discovered that she's not a virgin. Yet unhappier is he when his wife has not one, not two, but three girls.
Goma turned to a marabout, "a wise man who can read the signs," for advice. The marabout said that Hamida can't have boys. He does see a future with sons for Goma, though. He should take a second wife.
During her vacation in the Comoros, 18 year old Sara is married off to Gama. He leaves her, pregnant, behind on the island, where he visits her now and then. Sara pretends she can't do without him and finally gets permission from the imam to fly back to Paris. But immediately after landing at Roissy by Paris she escapes.
Goma tries it again, with a more pleasant women, from the island this time, Moina. She comes to La Courneuve on a tourist visa. Moina has twins, two boys! Fate smiles at Goma.
Goma has his wives work so he can live as a 'notable'. That mean that he can drink coffee with his friends and speak about the deterioration of their values in a foreign land. Meanwhile his wives fight a bitter battle in his three room apartment. On the advice of a friend ('that will teach them') he takes a third wife, Salima. She is just a little older than his eldest daughter. Now the household - that meanwhile has 14 children - definitively breaks apart. In the end, Goma murders Salima and flees to the Comoros.
The unbelievable but true story of Goma was written by Ibrahim Yakoub, a 44 year old driving examiner from La Corneuve. His book "Goma, polygamist from La Courneuve" didn't get much attention when it was published, but now its' probably going to become a movie. Yakoub is very happy about that. That way his warning against a "practice which should disappear as quickly as possible" will get the attention it deserves, he hopes.
Yakoub grew up in a polygamous family. His father had three wives. "I was one of the children of my father's second wife," he says in a cafe. "My mother couldn't get along with my father's first wife, who later moved in with us and whose hostile attitude against me I couldn't understand as a little boy. But polygamy there, is mostly completely different than in France, men mostly have their wives spread over the island. Polygamy in an apartment is a recipe for misfortune, the apartments turn into gunpowder."
Goma, whose story Yakoub reconstructed based on talks with his wives and children, is an extraordinarily sad example in this category. "And luckily," he says, the problem in the Comoran community is 'partway solved." He knows at the moment of a few cases, two or three. "Women resist more often, like Sara in the book. The power of the notables, who informally administer justice in case of conflicts, is waning."
It does happpen every summer that girls don't come back from vacation to the coutnry. "'They've found work there,' you hear. But than everybody knowns enough, because you don't have work there at all. Tehy're forced than to marry somebody from the home villlage of their parents."
Yakoub gets a lot of approval from Comoran women and girls. "Nine older women took the metro together to the city to buy the book. To support me, they said," he laughs. The notables respond differently. "They say that I'm burning down the house. Or that I do it for the money. They don't threaten me, They use discretion. One admitted that polygamous life in France is not doable."
It's unknown how much polygamy there is in France. According to a 2006 estimate of the CNCDH, a national advisory board for human rights, there are 16,000-20,000 polygamous families. Such a family consists of about 11, 12 members, which means at least 180,000 people living in a polygamous relationship. That doesn't include the men who have other wives in Africa with which they spend part of the year.
Compared to the total number of households in France, this figure is naturally negligible, about 0.3%. But these families almost all live in backwards neighborhoods in the Paris region, and less in those of Lyons and Marseille. "Therefore you can speak of an explosive situation," says researcher and women right's activist Sonia Imloul.
For a while Imloul followed the wives of a polygamous family in La Courneuve. Just like in Yakoub's book, it developed into a drama. In a fight, the daughter of one of the wives got boiling water over her, the girl was so seriously injured that she had to be brought to a hospital in a coma. The son of another wife took revenge for his sister by raping the daughter of wife number two.
Tension and violence express themselves in school dropouts and difficult behavior. "There are toddlers that are so unmanageable that they are sent to a second or third school."
Municipalities often don't know what to do. Imloul mentions a case in the Paris suburb of Montreuil in which two polygamous bothers, with two wives each, had forty children. "Almost all the children went to the same school. The brothers asked to the mayor for an appropriate residence, so that they could continue living together. "But I don't have any 15-room apartments," the mayor answered, then. This family in any case already cost Montreuil a fortune.”
The French authorities generally have a problem thinking of themselves, says Imloul. Polygamy has been tolerated for so long, facilitated even by the housing companies and the CNAF, the organization paying out child welfare. Only in 1993 an immigration law was passed that crossed off polygamy as a reason for family reunification.
But did that help? It's very possibly that brides continue to come in on tourist visa. Because so much is unclear, the problem has to finally be mapped out, to begin with, Imloul wrote in November of last year, in a report for the Institut Montaigne, a liberal think-tank.
At the same time, women, who seldom have agreed to the marriage, need to be helped to leave their husband, Imloul recommends. "That means that they should get their own house, a French course, an training to stand on their own two feet." She says that this should include a residence permit, because their illegality makes them very vulnerable.
This policy has been applied here and there, but still too little, says Imloul.
Les Mureaux, a city of 30,000 residents west of Paris, is a good example. When in 2005 it was decided to destroy many rental apartments, built in the 1950s for Renault workers, they also wanted to banish polygamy here.
It's going well, says municipal spokesperson Boris Venon. "Till now we've got 18 families separated, 245 people. We're now yet working with 32 familiies. With 23 of them the going's good. The remaining nine families are still with each other, we're still working on it."
Venon says that everything depends on the question whether the women are prepared to live alone with their children. And if there are residence available. "Our advantage is that we're a small municipality. It's possible that we don't know all the polygamous families, but you do attract attention here more quickly."
It's unknown whether the husbands still keep their exes under control from afar. In any case they lose an important weapon: their wives get their own bank accounts. So he can't get to the money that his wives earn anymore, and also the child welfare, which with ten children can get to more than 1,300 euro a month, passes him by.
Ibrahim Yakoub is annoyed by the "institutionalized laxity" of the government, which does too little about his idea. "This is not only the problem of polygamous families, immigrants have too many children here in general. Four, five children, ethnic French do that if they have a high income. But here, in cities like La Courneuve, it's the average for parents who earn minimum wages or are dependent on welfare. That simply can't be."
Not poverty, but high fertility and failing parents, contribute to crime in the suburbs, says Yakoub. "Because boys 10, 11 years old, who are always allowed everything, flee their apartment, hang out on the street and get the wrong friends there. Institute a curfew, thn they'll stay inside. Just like their sisters who aren't allowed out."
The solution is not simple, says Yakoub. "Because the mentality of Africans in France must change. But don't give a bonus for having children. In France, child welfare is progressive, for the third child you get more money, we should stop that. and the 300 euro per child that you get here every year for books and school supplies, should go directly to the school, because the people here don't spend that money on the education of their children."
But even those simple regulations have little chance, he sighs. "Anything having to do with ethnicity is taboo here in France, brave administrators are rare. And president Sarkozy talks tough, but it always stays words."
This article was prepared by the Islam in Europe blog - islamineurope.blogspot.com