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Germany to clamp down on religious polygamy

Ben KnightJune 14, 2016

Justice Minister Heiko Maas has said he wants to clamp down on polygamy in Germany, which many say is unofficially tolerated by local councils. But he declined to propose any actual measures.

Symbolbild Polygamie
Image: picture-alliance/maxppp/M. Menou

Justice Minister Heiko Maas has promised to clamp down on polygamy, preventing Muslims in Germany from maintaining multiple marriages. "No one who comes to us has the right to put their cultural roots, or their religious beliefs, above our laws," Maas told Tuesday's edition of "Bild" newspaper. "For that reason multiple marriages cannot be recognized in Germany."

Though polygamy is already outlawed in Germany, the newspaper alleged that German authorities "often look the other way" if a Muslim migrant brings several wives into the country.

Maas said that there needed to be a crackdown on arranged marriages, especially if underage girls were involved. "We have to assess this very carefully," he said. "We cannot tolerate forced marriages."

In fact, the legal circumstances are already fairly clear. Polygamy is not only illegal in Germany, it is a criminal offense, and authorities cannot register more than one woman as a wife to the same man, migrant or not. Neither the "Bild" newspaper nor the Justice Ministry elaborated on what measures could be implemented to limit polygamy.

Heiko Maas Bundesjustizminister
Maas said that polygamy should not be toleratedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.Schindler

Polygamy in Germany

Some say that Germany has offered de facto legitimacy to polygamy in the past. In 2013, Germany's President Joachim Gauck found himself caught up in the debate when he became honorary godfather to a three-month old baby called Ismail, the seventh child of Sabedin Tatari, a Kosovo-Albanian Muslim who lived with two women he considered his wives in the western city of Gelsenkirchen.

Gauck was performing one of the president's official duties, by which he or she can become godfather to a seventh child - if the parents apply for it - as a way of symbolizing the state's special responsibility and debt to families who raise multiple children.

In this particular case, however, Gauck received an irritated letter from a local Christian Democratic Union MP calling on him to overhaul the criteria for such honorary godparenthoods, since "bigamy is banned under German law." Meanwhile, a number of outraged letters to mainstream newspapers as well as articles on right-wing blogs were also written on the story.

Re-thinking marital status

Germany seems to have painted itself into a corner on the issue in 2009, when the marital status law was changed so that religious weddings did not have to be preceded by a state marriage. This was done partly to accommodate immigrants from countries such as Israel and several Muslim countries that do not have an official state marriage system, as well as to bring Germany in line with international standards.

But the measure was strongly criticized at the time by the human rights group Terre des Femmes, which said the alteration meant that, in practice, women were more likely to be left economically dependent on their husbands, since they would not necessarily be entitled to alimony if the marriage failed.

The group also said that it opened the door to the de facto legalization of polygamy, and to unofficial arranged marriages to minors. The organization said it often encountered girls who were married off at 14 in a religious ceremony, with the marriage given state legitimacy in a registry office once the girl reached the legal age.

Deutschland Berlin Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck nimmt am öffentlichen Fastenbrechen teil
President Gauck was caught up in the debate in 2013Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

New rules

Nevertheless, a migrant coming to Germany with more than one wife cannot legally have all of them legitimately recognized by the state. Local authorities, who have to administer such cases, get around it by simply recognizing one of those marriages as official, while the other women are classified as single, or single mothers if they have children - which might be significant if they are entitled to state benefits.

Some critics also say that in cases where the husband dies, local authorities often simply divide his pension among several wives, even though he officially only had one. Though Maas did not bring up such examples - and the Justice Ministry declined DW's invitation to elaborate on the "Bild" report - his statement could be read as a warning to local authorities to stop such practices.

"I know a few men with many wives," Berlin imam Abdul Adhim Kamouss told DW. "The question is what does Maas want to do? I can understand it if he says that people who live here in Germany, and grew up here, cannot marry more than one woman - that is the law - but what about the people who come here and already have more than one wife? What are you supposed to do with those marriages?"

"But unofficially, the state cannot prevent a man and a woman freely getting married in a mosque - the state has nothing to say on that," he added.

Polygamy - or more specifically polygyny, when a man has several wives, rather than a woman several husbands - is legal in most of the Muslim world, and Islamic tradition allows a man to take up to four wives. There are no official statistics on how many people live in such marriages in Germany.