There seemed to be an inordinate amount of talk about polygamy last year –perhaps because of the long-awaited trial of two offenders from the town of Bountiful in British Columbia. In Canada, polygamy is a criminal offence under section 293 of the Criminal Code, but prosecutions have been rare. Polygamy must be differentiated from Bigamy, of course. With both of them, there are multiple partners (usually women) but with polygamy the marriage partners are presumably willing and knowledgeable about the other partners, whereas with bigamy, there is an attempt to deceive. Or, in a more legal framework, bigamy is the crime of marrying while one has a spouse still living, and from whom no valid divorce has been obtained.
I have to admit that I didn’t know that ‘polygamy’ was gender neutral –or, rather, it was nowhere near the apex of the pile of words I figured I’d look up some day. But, now that I mention it, I wonder if I’d stopped to think about the etymology, I would have known something was up –at least in our increasingly multi-gendered society… Although, in fairness to me, it’s roots are clear: gamos means something like ‘marry’ or ‘union’ in Greek. In fact, the term can be either ‘polygyny’ –many wives, or, I suppose, ‘polyandry’ –many husbands, but we don’t usually need to be so specific. As Claudio says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Oh, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’
The origins of polygyny –sorry, polygamy– are nested in the depths of time, but according to a 2010 article in the Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/the-big-question-whats-the-history-of-polygamy-and-how-serious-a-problem-is-it-in-africa-1858858.html, ‘It is most common in places where pre-colonial economic activity centred around subsistence farming […]Africa being a prime example. High levels of infant mortality may be a factor; when many children do not survive past the age of five a family needs more than one child-bearer to be economically viable. Then there is war. When a lot of men die, having more than one wife boosts the population most swiftly.’
But of course, times change, and so do economic and political pressures. Interestingly ‘Some anthropologists believe that polygamy has been the norm through human history. In 2003, New Scientist magazine suggested that, until 10,000 years ago, most children had been sired by comparatively few men. Variations in DNA, it said, showed that the distribution of X chromosomes suggested that a few men seem to have had greater input into the gene pool than the rest. By contrast most women seemed to get to pass on their genes. Humans, like their primate forefathers, it said, were at least “mildly polygynous”.’
It’s certainly not the norm nowadays, and often illegal. And yet, remember that in 2010, the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, ‘married his fifth wife in a traditional ceremony at his remote homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. His first wife, whom he married in 1973, was there to see him wed a woman 30 years his junior. His second wife stayed home to prepare the reception. He had two other wives but he divorced one in 1998 and another committed suicide in 2000.’ And the article went on to suggest that ‘he has not finished yet. The other day he paid the traditional dowry for his sixth fiancée [the article was published in 2010].’
‘In 1998 the University of Wisconsin surveyed more than a thousand societies. Of these just 186 were monogamous. Some 453 had occasional polygyny and in 588 more it was quite common. Just four featured polyandry.’ The study is obviously an older one, and societies and their mores evolve. According to an article in Wikipedia (last edited in July 2017), ‘Polygamy is [now] legal in 58 out of nearly 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of them being Muslim-majority countries situated in Africa and Asia. In most of these states, polygyny is allowed and legally sanctioned. Polyandry is illegal in virtually every state in the world. In India, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Sri Lanka polygamy is only legal for Muslims. In Nigeria and South Africa, polygamous marriages under customary law and for Muslims are legally recognized.’ That said, however, it is relatively common still in many Arab nations; among the Bedouin population of Israel it stands at about 30 per cent, according to the Independent.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. At the very least, it’s confusing -and not only for me, I suspect. What about at the state level for those countries in whom polygamy is illegal, like Canada and the U.S.A.? What are they to do with immigrants with two or more wives who seek asylum from persecution or war in their home countries? Should they be refused entry under all circumstances even if their needs are compelling and otherwise would have been candidates for acceptance?
There have been attempts to work around this dilemma, of course. Until recently at least, the U.S. has denied immigration to polygynists (either the man or any of his wives) but under some circumstances, ‘a refugee who was practicing polygamy before he immigrated will be required by U.S. immigration law to designate one wife as his legal wife to accompany him to the United States. Years later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he might divorce that wife, and marry the woman who was formerly his second wife, in order to petition for her to immigrate to the United States.’ (nolo.com -legal encyclopedia)
Okay, so there are ways around it, but in an already overcrowded world and especially in modern societies with safety nets for its more vulnerable citizens, it seems to me that whatever use polygamy once had –marrying widows to ensure orphans are taken care of, or maybe a way of quickly increasing a specific population, or even, of course, lessening the burden of work for a solo wife- is no longer necessary. One gets the distinct impression, however much disguised, that polygyny is merely an excuse for male sexual gratification dressed up as a tradition –another not so covert way of diminishing female authority and power.
I fail to see any way in which polygyny fosters gender equality, let alone female autonomy. And I would challenge any male who purports to believe that parity is possible under those circumstances, to argue as strenuously for polyandry. To accept that he would be as equal a partner as his wife and her other husbands… But of course, he could argue that polyandry is extremely uncommon and also illegal almost everywhere. That there must be a reason for that.
Gosh, I wonder what that would be…