First, let’s be clear: Polygamy refers to the custom of having more than one partner at the same time. It is an ancient practice in many cultures that did not start with the Mormon church or Islam and the simple truth is that it has a bad reputation.
I come from a polygamous home. No, my mother was not forced to marry my father. Yes, she was a grown woman when she made that decision — just like his other wives. No, it did not destroy my childhood and yes, we do all get along. I wanted to get that out of the way because those are the responses that I usually have to give when I tell someone about this. It always amazes me that polygamy is such a taboo subject in North America even though it is a practice that is alive and well in many parts of the world.
Women have been the victims in many polygamous marriages. The custom is common in places where women and children have little to no rights under a very strict code, thus limiting the access that they have to resources and reinforcing the patriarchy that they already live in. These are the stories that make it to the news and so these are the images that many have associated with this practice. It then becomes easy to think of polygamy as an ancient practice that should have been left a few centuries behind even though we are becoming more and more open to polyandrous relationships. Why then do things become different when it comes to marriage?
A close friend of mine told me that it has to do with our changing ideas about marriage itself. I can see where she is coming from. Marriages are becoming less and less common for many different reasons. Common law partnerships and single parents have become part of the norm. That doesn’t explain the ‘stigma’ on polygamous homes, though. After all, we are seeing fewer weddings, but we are not assuming that those who do choose to get married are somehow at a disadvantage.
The issue with most polyamorous relationships used to be the lack of honesty and equality. This is an issue in many marriages as well and sadly, we already know who suffers the most in these relationships. We can obviously imagine how much more of a problem this would be when it comes to polygamy. If one woman already has little power in her marriage, it can only get worse if the little she has now needs to be shared amongst 2, 3, 4 or more people.
We have made a great deal of progress with our understanding of monogamous and polyamorous relationships. Empowered women are learning that they too can have multiple partners if they so chose. Independent young girls are understanding that they do not have to become financially dependent on their spouses when they get into a marriage. Secure men are growing into stronger individuals who know that they are not defined by how “macho” they are.
Mankind has practiced polygamy for thousands of years but it is more popular in certain cultures and faiths than others. In Islam, for example, it is permitted for a man to have up to four wives if certain conditions are met. Sadly, in many countries, the rules around this practice are often ignored or manipulated to victimize young women. In Christianity, the practice is a bit more taboo even though many characters from the bible including King Solomon, King David, and Jacob had more than one spouse.
Although holy books don’t actually forbid polygamy in layman’s terms, they all sort of set monogamy as the norm. The Christian church clearly ran with this idea as they outright banned polygamy. It then makes sense that western nations, which were predominantly Christians for many years, would see polygamy as a foreign concept.
There is no denying that there are issues with poly-amorous unions but many of those same issues exist in monogamous ones as well. The legality of the matter and the economic side of things is something that I won’t get into, but I think it’s time that we actually start to think about polygamy. What we really need to be addressing is the inequality and power dynamics in the world. It’s time that we recognize that it is – when done fairly, just another relationship. One that only functions with consenting individuals who mutually respect one another.
One that we have no right to judge.
What are your thoughts?