Oh, What Men Dare Do!

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…








I am a prisoner of my age, a hostage to my generation; I never thought I’d say that, but I suppose none of us do… We are as contemporary as our minds and experience will allow.

My own epiphany came, as I recall, when a patient engaged me in a discussion of gender. I had not intended to be controversial; neutrality -or at least impartiality- had been my intent in our exploration of her problem. I am, after all, a male meddling in female affairs so I must needs approach it as a visitor to a foreign land: respectful of its customs and willing to learn. I even used those words, I think, but it seemed they were the points of contention, however. Unbeknownst to me, I had innocently strayed into a minefield.

“Why do you have to feel as if you are a stranger?” she asked, eyes ablaze.

I thought about it for a moment, but I have to admit my response was weak. “I suppose because I am a man and was brought up as one…” I left the end of my sentence open, hoping she would not ask for further clarification. I was mistaken.

“But that’s just my point,” she said, rising briefly off her chair in her enthusiasm. “We’re both human, and despite the difference in our ages, both equally entitled.”

I could have wished she hadn’t felt the need to comment on our age difference, but entering into the spirit of the discussion, I put down my pen. “Entitled to..?”

Her face crinkled for a split second before she could rein it in. “Well, entitled was probably the wrong word; entitled implies that there is someone who is allowing, permitting, something. What I’m suggesting is that there should be no gender split…” My eyebrows must have moved, because the wrinkles reappeared on her face and stayed put. “No gender discrimination,” she added, as if that would clarify her meaning and win me over.

I don’t need to be convinced there is egregious gender discrimination throughout the world, but I suppose I assumed that the worst of it took place somewhere else: developing countries, or places still troubled by malaria -naive in the extreme, I  must confess, but a topic not often front-and-center in my everyday life. I believe in equality of opportunity for everybody, gender included, but I recognize that the platform from which I regard this is that of a white male in a position of relative authority and privilege -something so taken for granted that I no longer see it. Or don’t want to…

“I don’t see why the absence of a Y chromosome should relegate me to a particular role in society.”

She said it with such vehemence I couldn’t think of a suitable response at first. There are some things about our dealings with the world that are hard to express, much less analyse dispassionately. “How would you change things,” I asked finally, hoping she would understand my quandary.

She crossed her arms defiantly. “The very fact that you had to ask, is part of the problem,” she said, trying her best to smile politely. “How do you change things when the very institutions that you want to change, don’t think there is anything wrong?” She pinned me to the wall with eyes like spotlights. “Why should I have to behave a certain way, just because I happen to be female? Why is there an expectation that is constrained by gender? Limited by gender? Imprisoned by gender?”

She was becoming very excited and agitated across the desk from me, but all I could do was smile in what I hoped was a sympathetic way and show I was open to her indignation.

“I mean washrooms, for god’s sake!” She rolled her eyes; I remained silent, not knowing what she meant. “Why is there still washroom discrimination?”

I have to admit I hadn’t thought that was even a problem. I just go into the one with the little man sign; there is usually a woman sign right beside it, so it’s not like we have more of them. And if there’s no sign, no indication of sexual preference, I assume it doesn’t matter. End of story. “Is…” -my tongue floundered about, looking for the right question- “Is that usually a problem?” I couldn’t think of anything else to ask.

Her arms folded even more tightly across her chest. “Not usually!” she snorted, eyes locked on mine as if we were wrestling. For once I was glad my desk was so wide. “But there’s no need for two types of washrooms.” I watched her as passively as I could manage, given the tight hold she had on my face. “But washrooms are only the part of the iceberg that’s showing. Society discriminates: it assigns roles; Language discriminates -you know: chairman, fisherman, fireman

 “I thought we’d changed those,” I said, feeling suddenly compelled to defend Society, or something. “You know: it’s Chair, and Flight Attendant… That sort of thing…”

“Yeah, but inside, you’re thinking chairman, or stewardess aren’t you?”

I shrugged. “Maybe I am, but that’s because those were the words I grew up with; younger people probably don’t even know we used to call female flight attendants stewardesses.” I decided to cross my own arms to make the point. “And besides, language evolves alongside Societal trends -Societal demands, if you will. It means a shift is occurring, however slowly, don’t you think?”

Her face softened and a twinkle appeared in her otherwise steady gaze. She had, after all, come to me with another problem for which she sought help and guidance. Perhaps coming to a male for her gynaecological issue meant that she saw me as gender neutral after all. “Would you mind if I asked you a rather personal question, doctor?”

I shook my head -affably, I hope- but with a sinking feeling in my chest; I could feel it coming.

“Would you go to a female doctor for your prostate?” I suspect I blushed, because she suddenly smiled and visibly relaxed in her seat. “It’s a very slow shift…”