Growing up in the conservative Arab kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Nadine Al-Bedair had one father, three mothers, and 15 siblings. That's because in Islam, men can have as many as four spouses at a time. But women have to make do with one.
This past December, in a groundbreaking article in an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Bedair, a gutsy 31-year-old journalist, blasted the long-standing practice, musing about how much fun she'd have picking out her husbands if polygamy were legal for women. "I will choose them in different shapes and sizes," she wrote, arguing that women should be allowed to spice up their marital lives with variety just like men.
In Saudi Arabia—where women can be arrested by religious police merely for chatting with men—talk like this is jaw-droppingly scandalous. (No Saudi newspaper would even publish Al-Bedair's article; she had to find an outlet in marginally more liberal Egypt.) The Muslim world exploded with fury over the article; religious clerics denounced it as "shameful" and "anti-Islamic," and one Egyptian politician even filed a lawsuit against Al-Bedair and the newspaper for "promoting vice."
Such outrage was exactly what Al-Bedair hoped to provoke, she says, speaking to Marie Claire in her first interview with the Western media since the furor began several months ago. "Muslim women have tried before to point out the inequalities in the polygamous marriage system, but nobody listened. I had to scream to start a debate." In reality, Al-Bedair, who hosts a women's-rights show called Equality on TV network Alhurra, doesn't think multiple spouses are such a great idea for men or women. "I know firsthand how it can create conflict and enemies within the same family," she says. "Wives often end up miserable, existing in a loveless limbo."
For daring to question the supposedly God-given status quo, she has received hate mail calling her a prostitute, a pervert, and worse. "My mother is afraid for me to go out on the street in case somebody shoots me, but I refuse to be intimidated," she says, noting that she has also received hundreds of letters of support. "I've got people talking," she says, "and I'm proud of that."