JTL was talking in the comments about community responsibilities toward families in polygyny. This is a really important topic, because community support or lack thereof can have a significant effect on a polygynous marriage.
While I’m sure there are ideal communities somewhere that support the families within them regardless of their marriage style, most communities fall into one of two general categories when it comes to polygyny.
Consider the polygyny-obsessed community. This is a masjid or a region where the idea of polygyny is being actively preached and practiced, and the leaders and others make it their business to encourage brothers to take additional wives. This is a an unwise proposition because brothers who might not otherwise even think about polygyny can be guilt-ed into “bringing back this sunnah”, and they might not be financially, emotionally or spiritually ready for such an endeavor.
In addition, once the brothers marry there is usually no counseling or instruction to assist them with the heavy responsibilities they’ve taken on, and often not even any good, humble, open role models for them to emulate. There is also often no sheikh or “big brother” to hold them accountable for doing polygyny right (avoiding welfare fraud, being fair with time and resources, dealing with stepchildren and half sibilings, etc.). The communities where polygyny is encouraged are most often made up of reverts, and it has to be remembered that they did not grow up with polygyny as part of their culture, so they have no reference point for how to be a husband in polygyny, nor do they usually have the support and help of their families.
Pushing polygyny is also dangerous because it can breed an atmosphere of judgement and even bullying for the sisters. Many sisters are made to feel inadequate or downright sinful if they object to or have a hard time adjusting to polygyny. There is an attitude that polygyny is the be-all and end-all of deen measurement and that its acceptance is incumbent upon each woman, regardless of her circumstances or her reasons for not liking it. If her husband stops supporting her, cheats her out of her time, abuses her verbally, forces her to live on state subsidies, even moves away completely, she is encouraged to accept it as qadr. This reflects a poor understanding of both polygyny and qadr. Would these same people encourage a man to “be patient” with a wife who decided not to ever cook again or who refused to care for her children? Not many would. But those things, too, are qadrullah. It is no more halal to abuse or cease supporting a wife than it is to stop cooking or to neglect one’s children. (In fact, according to Maliki fiqh, women are not even required to DO housework and cooking, and if they choose to these are considered nafl acts!) This attitude that women are not good Muslimahs unless they accept polygyny unconditionally, without even the limits Allah put on it, is insidious and ignorant.
Of course I’m not saying that women should bail out or should be encouraged to leave their husbands at the very mention of polygyny. But neither should they be encouraged to stay and be endlessly patient in a destructive marriage. And putting up with abuse should definately not be used as a measuring stick for their iman.
Then there is the other extreme, which is a community that rejects the idea of polygyny altogether and denies any kind of support or encouragement whatsoever to families who choose polygyny. Some community leaders simply advise against it carte blanche, without considering each case on its own merits, and then leave families to deal with all their problems alone because, after all, they were told not to enter polygyny and they chose to do it anyway, so they will just have to muddle through as best they can.
In our case, the Islamic school’s tuition was set up according to family, with discounts being given for each additional student. One year it was even a flat fee per family. But the school insisted on counting polygynous families as two separate families. Of course schools are not required to count all of a man’s wives and children as one family, but this seems like one small way a community could support the polygynous families in its midst rather than make things more difficult for them.
In both polygyny-obsessed and polygyphobic communities, the least people could do would be to refrain from gossiping about a polygynous family. This, of course, often proves most difficult and even some normally dignified Muslims fall prey to discussing and dissing polygynous families. If community members cannot even pass this tiny test from Allah, how do they justify expecting the polygynous family members to pass such a great test with no help or support?
Polygyny seems to me to be a symptom of a larger problem that Muslims have with supporting each other and with implementing and maintaining organizations and services to help our ummah become strong. If we don’t get it together and start taking our community duties seriously we will see more and more division, more and more failed marriages of every type, and more and more assimilation as people have to turn away from the Muslim community to get resources and assistance they need.