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Some immigrants in this country are quietly breaking laws regarding polygamy. It is illegal in all 50 states to marry more than one person at a time. But under Islamic law, a man can marry up to four wives. An estimated 50,000 Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has the first of two reports on Muslim polygamy in America.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The lobby of sanctuary for families is bursting with color, a dozen women in bright African dresses and head wraps. The West African immigrants come here each week to this support group, where they discuss hard issues - domestic abuse, medical problems, immigration hurdles.

Dr. BETH SILVERMAN-YAM, (Clinical Director Sanctuary): Maria...

HAGERTY: Beth Silverman-Yam, the clinical director for Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit group in New York City, looks around as the women settle into their chairs.

Dr. SILVERMAN-YAM: I think we should start...

(Speaking foreign language)

HAGERTY: Today's topic - polygamy, which is freely practiced in parts of Africa. Each woman is asked: Have you experienced polygamy firsthand?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #4: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #5: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #6: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #7: No.

Unidentified Woman #8: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #9: Yes.

SARAH: Yes, yes, yes.

(Soundbite of laugh)

HAGERTY: That last woman is Sarah who, like the others would only give her first name for fear of retribution or deportation. She says in her country - Guinea - the husband springs it on his wife that he's going to marry someone else.

SARAH: He say, okay, I'm going to be married tomorrow, or he say I'm going to be married today. It happened to me...

(Speaking foreign language)

HAGERTY: Sarah begins to cry, others nod in sympathy. These women are all Muslim. And the Koran states that men may marry up to four women. The prophet Mohammad had multiple wives, but there's a restriction, says Sally, who came from Ivory Coast. The man cannot favor one woman over another with his wealth or his heart.

SALLY: You have to love them the same way, share everything the same way equally. Nobody can do that. That's impossible.

HAGERTY: Still, polygamy goes on despite state laws that prohibit it. Here's how a man gets around them: He marries one woman under civil law and then marries one or two or three others in religious ceremonies not recognized by the state. For example, Fatu(ph) had been married to her husband for 20 years when he decided to marry a woman half her age in their hometown in Senegal. She says he prefers his younger wife and leaves Fatu in New York for months at a time with five children to care for.

FATU: He doesn't call me. Sometimes he stays in Senegal like three months. He doesn't call me. He doesn't his children. He doesn't pay the bill on the house, on the light, on - he doesn't pay nothing.

HAGERTY: Or take Sally. Her husband moved to the United States first. And then when Sallie joined him she found he had married someone else. But without legal papers, she didn't dare come forward.

SALLY: They put me in the basement. I'm the one cook, clean. I don't speak English. Anytime you don't say nothing. You say something, she's going to make you deported. And me, I want to be (unintelligible).

HAGERTY: That fear of deportation prevents many from leaving their polygamous relationships.

Ms. JULIE DINNERSTEIN (Sanctuary for Families): Legally, they're invisible.

HAGERTY: July Dinnerstein is a senior attorney for Sanctuary for Families.

Ms. DINNERSTEIN: If you are the second or third or fourth wife, that marital relationship is not going to be recognized for immigration purposes. It means if your husband is a citizen or green card holder, he can't sponsor you. It means if your husband gets asylum, you don't get asylum at the same time. The man is always going to be in a position of greater power.

HAGERTY: In the past decade, Muslim clerics began to notice that some men who wanted a religious wedding were already married to someone else. Daisy Khan heads the American Society for Muslim Advancement and is married to an imam. She says polygamy is more common among conservative, less educated immigrants from Africa and Asia and less common among Muslims from the Middle East. Nowadays, mosques often do background checks on the grooms to make sure they're not already married in their home countries.

Khan says she raises the issue with the engaged couple she counsels.

Ms. DAISY KHAN (American Society for Muslim Advancement): I also explain to them that as a woman you have certain rights, and as a man he may one day exercise his right to have a second wife. And usually the man says no, no, no, I'm never going to do that. And I said, well, in case you ever get tempted, how about if we put that in the contract?

HAGERTY: But, other clerics still perform second marriage ceremonies in secret. Abed Awad, a family law attorney in New Jersey, says for many Muslim men multiple wives mean many children, which is considered a blessing in Islam. And since Islam allows for sexual relations only in marriage, polygamy legitimizes the relationship in God's eyes.

Mr. ABED AWAD: (Lawyer) You're actually responsible for that person as your spouse. And the sexual relationship becomes a sexual relationship of love and companionship as opposed to just a fling.

HAGERTY: Awad who does not condone polygamy says there can also be advantages for some women, particularly those who are divorced or widowed. In fact, I met one Palestinian woman who is happy to be a second wife. Mona and her first husband divorced in 1990 leaving her with six children. Suddenly, she was a pariah in her conservative Muslim community in Patterson, New Jersey.

MONA: When the ladies divorce, the people is looking down to her, you know. He's looking to her like a second class.

HAGERTY: Then, 14 years ago, a man approached her to be his second wife. Her problems evaporated.

MONA: After that, when Ahmed, the second husband, everybody's okay. If I go anywhere, I'm free, you know. Nobody talks because I have husband.

HAGERTY: We're not revealing Mona's last name and her husband would not be interviewed for this story because he could be charged with bigamy. He provides for both of his families and divides his time between the two homes. Mona says the first wife was initially angry but she got used to it.

MONA: What is the problem? If he not happy with the first marriage, why he would stay all the life like this? You know, my religion is good, because he gives the man and woman another chance, you know, to be happy.

(Soundbite of voices)

At Mam African Hair Braiding salon in Queens, New York, husbands are often the topic of conversation. As the Senegalese owner, Miriam Dougrou, weaves cornrows on a young woman, she says that her father married four women and she had 19 or 20 siblings. She lost count. So did her father.

Ms. MIRIAM DOUGROU: (Owner, Senegalese) Sometimes he doesn't know who's who, and he forget the name. He doesn't know (unintelligible).

TIMOTHY: (Miriam's Husband) He calls them number one, number two.

Ms. DOUGROU: Yes.

HAGERTY: That's Miriam's husband, Timothy. Miriam throws him a glance.

Ms. DOUGROU: No, he knows he cannot have second wife. He was talking about it but like a joke. But I told him I'm not joking, I'm not - don't tease me because I won't be a second wife. Yeah, I'm glad to be the first and the last wife like I said.

HAGERTY: Miriam says polygamy is no longer acceptable in her generation nor is it accepted in their new country says her friend, Sally, who has come to visit from the West African support group.

SALLY: This country met us freedom. It's like they said we Americanized now. Here, we're lucky. The law is there to save us.

HAGERTY: I asked Timothy, who's sitting in the corner keeping awfully quiet, whether he wants a second wife. No, he says, with a half smile. One is enough for me.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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