Saudi writer Nadine Al Bdair says polyandry should be allowed now that DNA testing can prove who is the father of a child.
She wants Muslim scholars to allow women to marry up to four husbands in the same way that men can have up to four wives.
"Traditionalists argue that Islam forbids women to marry more than one man at once to determine the fatherhood of the child in case the woman becomes pregnant. This argument has now collapsed because modern science can identify the father of any child through DNA testing," she said.
Responses have varied; some have taken her article as a protest against inequalities in Muslim marriage laws. Secularist commentators are talking about freedom of expression. Lawyer Khalid Fouad Hafez, who is also the Secretary General of the People's Democratic Party in
Egypt has denounced it as blasphemy and a call for an immoral act that is a violation of the Egyptian criminal code. He said that unless she repents, the law must take action to protect (Muslim) society against her call to 'legalise adultery'.
To take a step back from the reactions, would DNA testing really do women any favours? Would it liberate women, Muslim or otherwise? Do they really want polyandry?
In the UK, there are over 200,000 paternity tests a year, twice that many in America - and those are only the official figures, not counting home testing. There is a long article in the New York Times about the emotional devastation caused to men who discover that their children are not really theirs. Stories appear in the media every now and then claiming that one in ten men are unwittingly bringing up someone else's child or, in China, nearly one in three men. Companies offer home testing kits with names like Peace of Mind DNA Paternity testing (in Ireland, for around 700 euros as peace of mind doesn't come cheap).
Peace of mind is the last thing these tests offer; they sell suspicion and stories about false paternity feed the doubt.
While Al Bdair may be making a valid point about injustice in the Muslim world, her solution would create more problems for women, Muslim or not. If testing became widespread, men would more readily suspect that they might not be the father, that women are not to be trusted. Women would be guilty until proven innocent. In more severe Muslim societies, it can already be next to impossible for a woman to clear her name, even if raped - with fatal consequences.
Marriage was historically an institution to produce legitimate heirs, which is why virginity was prized in a bride. Childbirth was all about the transfer of land, money and power in a time when fatherhood could not be guaranteed. Women started giving birth on their backs so that men could see the baby coming out and be sure it had not been switched for another. In some societies, men would favour their sisters' children who were certain to share at least some of their genes (or in earlier terms, to share a common ancestor). Arranged marriages in some cultures are still about a union of resources.
In behaviourist terms, marriage is a form of mate guarding, ensuring that females don't sneak off in search of better males with better quality sperm, knowing that the mate would rear the results. In other animals, guarding is a pretty hit and miss affair.
Even when couples marry for love, men may choose to raise someone else's children but do not want to be fooled into it. Even so, some research has found that stepchildren are more likely to be abused - the so-called Cinderella effect (although this is not without its critics). Adoptive parents prove that it is possible to raise other people's children but again, this is a choice.
Not only do stories about false paternity create a climate of suspicion, they are often based on a misreading of statistics. If 28% of paternity tests in a sample come up negative, this does not mean that 28% of men in the whole population are not the father of their children as media stories would indicate. For a start, men who get tested may have more of a reason to - often because the CSA is involved.
In the West there is still a lingering suspicion about women based on Judeao-Christian tradition. There are endless misogynistic quotes but here are two typical ones:
No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman.....Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die (Ecclesiasticus 25:19,24).
What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman......I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. (St. Augustine of Hippo: 354 to 430 CE).
This may seem a bit extreme but vestiges of the old virgin-mother-whore career options for girls do still lurk, as we see when promiscuous boys are heros and promiscuous girls are slags. Women's sexuality still has a long way to go to be the equal of men's.
There is also the lingering idea that childbirth is the most important thing a woman can do. This idea is perpetuated even by some women, who look down on childless women as excluded from their special club.
While many men of course do not worry about their paternity, relatives still routinely tell the father of a newborn how much it resembles him, a cultural left-over from a time when having the same nose was the only way of judging shared genes.
With or without DNA testing, polyandry would not easily allow women more sexual choice or financial support or equal social status. It would not even the playing field. Four husbands would mean four men wanting to pass on their genes, so increased pregnancies and child-rearing for the woman, effectively reducing her to a walking womb.
One man can impregnate countless wives in a short time but a woman can only provide offspring to one mate every nine months. This would lead to the husbands competing for womb-time. It's why the harem is common in nature but not polyandry. How do you keep the other husbands interested while waiting for their turn to come, if it ever does? And how would the men's wills work?
Fraternal polyandry, as practiced in a few remote communities in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Tibet, at least means the men all have some genetic investment in the children - as long as they can be sure that one of them really is the father. Multiple husbands, especially in more traditional societies, would mean multiple cooking, laundry and cleaning. And having four husbands would mean three other women with none.
Bdair may have done what she set out to by starting a heated debate on women's rights, but perhaps next time she could come up with a better idea to base it on. And that's without even going into what's best for the children. Any woman who thinks that testing is a good idea should read Othello.