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Polygamous Marriage and Women

My full response to One Feminist Asks, ‘Is Polygamy Inherently Bad for Women?’:

I know the focus of this article was polygamy in the Mormon community, but for the answer to your main question, I think you don't need to look much further than polygamy in certain Muslim communities in the Middle East and in Africa (and depending on which part of India, Hinduism, too).

In many communities, polygamous marriage works out just fine for women - it's splitting the workload of one wife between two, sometimes even three or four, women! It creates a support system for everything, ranging from children to housekeeping, to more progressive goals like jobs and education (i.e. if your husband has another wife who already has an education or has no interest in one, that's someone who can help you while you persue your own education). Not to mention that for all the stereotypes of men controlling women in polygamous marriages, think realistically - it's multiple women vs one man. Who's going to win? My father, while traveling in Egypt, visited a man who had two wives. He walked into the house expecting two diminutive women living two separate lives, possibly in separate parts of the house (as is the custom in some polygamous communities). Instead, the two women shared everything, man, house, ect. - and, upon learning that my father was a traveler with a lot of interesting stories to tell, basically ganged up on the man to get him to sit quietly while they chatted for hours with my dad.

In cases like these, not only would a polygamous marriage work out just fine for women, it might even be considered inadvisable for men! After all, if you think dealing with one wife's desires and demands is hard enough, what are you going to do when there's double, triple, maybe even up to quadruple that? In some parts of India, a man having multiple wives is considered a great feat not because he "conquered" or "won" the women into (as is often the relationship narrative in "progressive" societies like, well, ours), but because it takes a lot of personal strength and wealth to be able to support and maintain multiple wives. It's even considered a joke that a girl might say she's not marrying a man unless he has at least two wives because "that would be a good man, don't you know how rare they are?"

There is no denying that many women in polygamous marriages were married against their will, and/or as children, and face regular abuse from their husbands as well. But people forget - this happens in monogamous marriages, as well. Sexism in heterosexual relationships is not inherent, but society tends to try and make it inherent.

The problem is not polygamous marriage itself, but societal expectation of wives and women. The problems the article in the Vancouver Sun lists are basically that women are denied jobs and education, are sexually mutilated and denied of pleasure, and are kept isolated and in the control of men. This isn't because the men happen to have multiple wives, but because the society decides this is how wives are to be treated. All these problems happen in monogamous societies, as well. The entire narrative around the roles of women in marriage and society have changed - just a century or two ago, women in America - monogamous America - were also denied jobs and education, taught that sex is for procreation and not pleasure, and in many areas kept somewhat isolated or contained to their homes, and yet today women have come forward in leaps and bounds, barely a century and a half down the road. Who's to say women in polygamous marriages can't also change their narrative?

The structure of a marriage is never as important as the structure of a relationship. For all that most English-speakers think open homosexuality is a modern concept, during the Shakespearean era, it was prevalent and rampant - just not in marriage. Why? Because marriage was only about keeping the wealth with the right people and producing heirs to take that wealth in the right direction. Otherwise, both husbands and wives could find love and romance with anyone else outside of the marriage they wanted - and it's theorized (not proven) that the lower classes didn't marry at all - they had families, relationships, ect., just no marriage, at least not in any way that we think of it today. And yet, they functioned as a society.

The same concept holds true for plural relationships. While not in legal marriage, there are many people in consensual, polyamorous relationships in America, and committed at such a deep level to their relationships that for all intents and purposes, they are a polygamous relationship - one man deeply committed to two women or more women (or sometimes one woman with multiple men - people forget, it goes both ways!).

In the Vancouver Sun, the author ominously predicts that allowing polygamy into society will allow other undesirable societal customs to follow. I must ask - as a society, do we tolerate domestic abuse in monogamous relationships? No, we don't (or at least we try not to). Why would that change for polygamous marriage? Why would any other law change? If the men and women in the marriages treat each other well and all of them enter the marriage consensually (of age and fully agreeing to it), we have no reason to expect inherent domestic violence. (And if it does happen - like it does in monogamous relationships - then we as a society have many resources to offer to victims of domestic abuse).

Polygamous marriage is not what hurts women - sexism in society is.

Comments

Agreed

This is a great post. I actually felt pretty negatively about polygamy before I read this, but now I see your point.

I think there's somewhat of a correlation between societies that practice polygamy and societies that subjugate women, which might be why people view polygamy as inherently oppressive to women. But that doesn't mean that the former causes the latter. As you mentioned, some people practice polyamory in the US, and from what I've heard, these people actually tend to be much more progressive than conservative.

The only thing you said that I disagree with is this: "Not to mention that for all the stereotypes of men controlling women in polygamous marriages, think realistically - it's multiple women vs one man. Who's going to win?"

In societies where men are considered dominant over women--for instance, some religious societies--it really doesn't matter how many women it is versus one man. Traditional gender roles are very firmly ingrained in these societies, and the man has the final say no matter what. The family that your father encountered in Egypt probably worked the way it did because the husband believed in treating his wives fairly and letting them make their own decisions, not because there were two of them and they could overpower the him.

Re: Agreed

(Sorry for taking so long to reply - apparently I didn't have my blog set to notify me for comments).

And, I know that it doesn't have anything to do with the number of women in a household, but the society itself. I wish that more women = more power for women, but even monogamous societies like ours have proven that's not the case. I was simply making a point that it's faulty to think that polygamy equals female subjugation, and that in some cases it can work for women's advantage as they are 2+ women in a household against 1 man. Not always, but in some places, that's how it works, or at least that's how it can work.