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"Halal" Intimacy: Love, Marriage and Polygamy in Contemporary Malaysia



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Mohd Razif, Nurul Huda 


This thesis illustrates how love, legality, money, sex(uality) and sin direct Malays’ marital strategies in the face of various social, moral, religious and structural pressures. Passionate love (cinta) is cherished and celebrated by Malays – that is, if it is indulged within marriage. Marriage serves as a license to engage in (otherwise illicit) sexual desires by rendering them “halal” or lawful in the eyes of Islam and Malay adat (traditions). A vigilant State-led Islamic Bureaucracy, which polices and punishes pre- or extramarital sexual liaisons between unmarried couples through strict moral surveillance, further ensures that access to physical intimacy remains a conjugal privilege. However, hindered by complex bureaucratic procedures for marriage and pressured by escalating passions, many of my Malay informants are compelled to seek cheaper, quicker, and discreet alternatives in neighboring Southern Thailand to “halal-ize” pre- or extramarital romances, resulting in secret – and legally contentious – monogamous or polygamous cross-border marriages.

Cross-border marriages – specifically polygamous ones – are subsequently explored here as a careful (and often failed) negotiation between discretion and disclosure: their stability decreases with increased exposure, rendering them highly precarious. Contrary to the dominant male-centric scholarship on polygamy, this study privileges the perspectives and experiences of polygamous wives by considering how their position within the marriage informs their capacity to engage in – or conversely, disengage from – this multi-marital arrangement. Polygamy is embraced by some women as a female choice that secures access to marriage and motherhood – both crucial towards achieving Malay womanhood. For others, polygamy is hardly a “choice” at all, and they must cope with the discomforting reality in which the husband’s money, time, and attention are now “halved” between his wives. Love in polygamy is experienced in visible and measurable terms, and the husband’s unequal distribution of his emotional and economic resources create discontent among wives that may culminate in divorce, or covertly confronted through sorcery. In Malay polygamy, more therefore means less.




Mody, Perveez


Marriage, Polygamy, Polygyny, Malaysia, Love, Intimacy, Southeast Asia, Islam, Adat, Southern Thailand, Cross-Border Marriage, Sexuality, Bureaucracy, Malays


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
William Wyse Fund, Cambridge Commonwealth Trust (Honorary Scholar), the DayaDiri Foundation