An open secret

PlygamynislamA few weeks ago we looked at some particularly good religious coverage of a polygamous Muslim family in the Bronx that suffered unimaginable loss in a housefire.

The polygamous nature of the family raised many questions that were inappropriate to address during the grieving period. But New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein issued a great follow-up last week with her story about widespread polygamy practiced by African Muslim immigrants to New York. How’s this for a beginning?:

She worked at the Red Lobster in Times Square and lived with her husband near Yankee Stadium. Yet one night, returning home from her job, Odine D. discovered that African custom, not American law, held sway over her marriage.

A strange woman was sitting in the living room, and Ms. D.’s husband, a security guard born in Ghana, introduced her as his other wife.

Devastated, Ms. D., a Guinean immigrant who insisted that her last name be withheld, said she protested: “I can’t live with the woman in my house — we have only two bedrooms.” Her husband cited Islamic precepts allowing a man to have up to four wives, and told her to get used to it. And she tried to obey.

The story is full of anecdotes of similarly anguished women, immigrants to America, who feel powerless to fight polygamy even though it’s outlawed in every state in the union. The author points out that polygamy is usually associated with splinter Mormon groups rather than immigrant families. Bernstein talks about how the law doesn’t deal with the practice, even social service agencies. Only one marriage is legal while the others are sealed in religious ceremonies overseas.

The story pushes the point that this is not about Islam so much as cultural mores. Both certainly play a role but it is interesting to note, above, how the woman credits Islamic precepts for her polygamous life while the reporter credits African custom. Here Bernstein comes right out with her take:

Islam is often cited as the authority that allows polygamy. But in Africa, the practice is a cultural tradition that crosses religious lines, while some Muslim lands elsewhere sharply restrict it. The Koran says a man should not take more than one wife if he cannot treat them all equally — a very high bar, many Muslims say.

There is no question that polygamous practice varies in Muslim lands. And yet there’s also no question that the Koran permits taking up to four wives. How that is interpreted is up to debate but the people interviewed for the story — such as Odine D. above — point to religion. Here’s another interviewee who also sees Islam as being integral to the practice:

“It’s difficult, but one accepts it because it’s our religion,” said Doussou Traore, 52, president of an association of Malian women in New York, who married an older man with two other wives who remain in Mali. “Our mothers accepted it. Our grandmothers accepted it. Why not us?”

The story shows the challenges of accepting polygamy in New York when it is part of such a misogynous way of life. In addition to genital mutiliation, the women profiled are kept in check through beatings and threats of divorce, according to Bernstein. Divorce would lead to them being shunned or losing their immigration status. Despite her seeming pooh-poohing of the religious facet of the practice, it’s worthwhile read with tons of first-hand information on a secretive practice.

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  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    OK, here’s where a good reporter asks questions to find out from a wide range of Muslim clerics what is, in fact, taught and practiced in the Muslim religion. In Saudi Arabia, I am told, it is against the Muslim practice to practice polygamy. Of course the “well-healed” get around this with serial marriages and divorces. The principles in the story seem to all be from sub-Saharan Africa. So, is polygamy a regional practice?

    Interesting that the authorities haven’t tried to enforce the laws against polygamy. Perhaps a Supreme Court hearing on the issue may be in the offing, especially if polygamists in Utah and Arizona are charged but it appears no one looks into New York polygamy.

  • Michael

    I also thought it was a fascinating story, especially the context that it is as much cultural as religious. Having had interactions with immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the practice also appears to exist among Christians and animists.

  • danr

    Interesting, but a few holes:

    in Africa, the practice is a cultural tradition that crosses religious lines

    How does it cross religious lines? We’re given no indication of the rates of polygamy either in general, or in African Islam compared with other religions there.

    while some Muslim lands elsewhere sharply restrict it

    Which Muslim lands restrict it, and to what degree? The Times article you reference simply indicates that Tunisia became (only) the second “predominantly Muslim nation” (after Turkey) to outlaw polygamy. That leaves a lot of other nations whose legal/cultural approach to polygamy isn’t referenced.

    a very high bar, many Muslims say.

    Which Muslims? How “many”? Based on what data, interviews? Polls?

    It is somewhat informative and offers interesting anecdotes, but raises more questions than it answers, and leaves me hungry to research more on my own. But perhaps that’s a good thing…

  • http://none Jancis Andrews

    Re. the Malian woman who said, “Our mothers accepted it (polygamy). Our grandmothers accepted it. Why not us?”

    Our grandparenrts at one time also accepted slavery. Do we accept it just because they did? Polygamy is an ancient misogynistic practice come down from the time when women were used as chattels and sexual collectibles. America is a first-world country that prides itself that all its citizens are equal. Polygamy should be dumped into the garbage can of history, where it belongs. No concubines and harems in the U.S. please!

  • Alex

    I disagree with Jancis.
    Polygamy isn’t necessarily misogynistic.
    It seems to me if it were legal,
    then the women would have a choice to participate or not,
    but everything would be above board,
    and not hidden as an illegal practice.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The fact that so many immigrants to the U.S. today feel justified in invading and trashing our culture is because, in the name of diversity and a warped view of the Constititution (it CAN BE a suicide pact for our culture) we put far, far less pressure on new immigrants to Americanize–even to the idiotic job of catering to dozens of languages in a way no Polish, Italian, French, etc. immigrants were catered to.
    But, usually in the media, Americans concerned with these issues are portrayed as anti-Moslem religious bigots or narrow-minded American chauvinists. Maybe, as the surreptitious destruction of our American culture becomes more apparent some of the media will wake up to the many issues at stake–including “freedom of the press” (which doesn’t exist, as we know it, in any Islamic country.)

  • Umm Yasmin

    Why assume that it is inevitably misogynistic. I know good polygynous marriages and bad polygynous marriages as I know good and bad monogamous marriages.

    It’s certainly not for everyone, and it’s very much a minority practice within Muslim communities even in Muslim majority countries (varying from place to place). But in good polygynous marriages it can be very liberating for the wives. For example, I’m a career woman and I love my career but I also have a strong urge to be a homemaker so that my kids are raised in a home environment without going into daycare. Plural marriages allow the best of both worlds, where the woman who wants to work, can, and the woman who wants to stay at home, can, and the children don’t have to go into daycare.

    The problem in the Western environment, is that the inherent safeguards in Islamic law (such as the mahr, the marriage contract, the witnesses, etc.) aren’t available by legal remedy, and so when those men who *do* abuse polygyny (like in the featured story) there is no legal recourse for Muslim women as there would be under shari’a.

    For example, a Muslim woman drafting her marriage contract can stipulate monogamy if she wants to, but without the shari’a courts that people shot-down as an idea in Canada recently, her Islamic marriage contract protecting her right to monogamy is not there.

    The Prophet also is reported to have said that the best of men and the worst of men are the ones with polygynous marriages.

    Anyway – the whole link with female genital cutting and stoning is a swipe at Muslims. FGC is a minority practice and not linked with polygyny anyway.

  • Umm Yasmin

    BTW all the polygynous second wives I know are Western born women. So this whole immigrant/trashing culture argument is completely spurious.

  • holmegm

    Under state law, bigamy can be punished by up to four years in prison,

    So, what actually constitutes the offense, since we’ve legalized adultery?

    * Publicly declaring multiple marriage?

    * Trying to get multiple concurrent marriage licenses?

  • Eli

    I’m taking Umm’s side on this one. I think it might be a bit narrowminded and overly judgmental to assume that polygamy is by its nature a misogynistic institution akin to slavery of women when, as in Umm’s case, it seems that it can potentially be extremely liberating for a woman – giving her a means, in a sense, to “do it all” whereas she otherwise couldn’t. But I also think the article was a bit too one-sided and would have been greatly enhanced if Bernstein had interviewed someone like Umm to explore the other side of this terribly interesting story. And while I can’t see how anyone could possibly defend any form of genital mutilation or physical/mental abuse (or misogyny, in general, for that matter), I do think that a higher level of honest dialogue is possible than currently exists today in the MSM about the merits, or lack therof, of polygyny. Finally, where it makes sense to me how a polyandrous situation, by its nature, could lead to a fractious and dislocated psyche for a child, I can also see how a harmonius polygynous situation might potentially have the opposite effect on a child.

  • Mattk

    I was surprised that no imams, prosecutors, or ICE officers were quoted in the story.

  • Jerry

    Deacon Bresnahan presents a very negative opinion of how immigrants are treating American culture. I disagree with his opinion, but he does illustrate that there are a couple of issues here.

    One that others have addressed is how polygamy (polygyny) operates and how Islamic marriage contracts fit into the Muslim version of the practice. Since we still have such arrangements existing in Utah today, in spite of the legal situation, it’s not at all surprising that it persists amongst immigrants.

    The other, which he brings to the fore, is how modern immigrants are fitting into and changing our culture. My reading of the situation is that the latest generation of immigrants will add to the richness and strength of the US. I don’t see any fundamental difference between earlier “hyphenated Americans” such as Italian-Americans, African-Americans and the current generation. Our strength rests on celebrating what is best in the cultures we came from while fully participating in the cultural stew which is the US.

  • Will

    As Chesterton says,in our culture a man (e.g., Hefner) can have as many wives as he wants as long as he does not CALL them wives; “or rather, as long as he does not go through certain ceremonies to call them his wives”.

    So, how often is someone with one marriage certificate, but two or more religious marriages, prosecuted for bigamy? In which states?

    Will, whose uncle was ” a bigamist”, but “ONLY in New York state, dear”, and could never get anyone to explain how this was compatible with the Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    I thought it was interesting how the tone of the Muslim polygamy story was negative overall, while the tone was positive in the recent NY Times story on polygamy in the family of the UNLV basketball player. I am not trying to read too much into that, but could cultural differences (language, economics, skin color, etc.) have played a part in the differing takes by the reporters?

    Following up on that, how does an editor decide to call all the women involved in these relationships “wife” if they are not legally wives? Is self-identification the sole standard?

  • Will

    Say, what is the journalistic response going to be when someone calls for a polygamous gay marriage?

  • Sarah Webber

    Perhaps we Americans grew up thinking marriage was about love and all the practicalities were secondary. Somehow I don’t see our “version” of love in these relationships. Whether or not it’s healthy for these women is up to each woman to decide. I think what we all want is to give them an opportunity to decide for themselves.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jerry–Who decides what is “best” in an incoming culture??
    And what if there is a strong disagreement on what is that “best” which should be not only allowed, but become part of the American “stew.” There was strong, strong unabashed, unashamed pressure put on immigrants to Americanize in the 19th and most of the 20th Century–even though those immigrants were virtually all from Judeo-Christian Western cultures. But now some sort of “diversity” mentality seems to reign in academe and the media. This at a time when huge numbers of immigrants are coming from radically different Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. In the past cultures have disappeared as they have been swamped by other cultures.
    And it is clear the attitude of very many Islamic groups in Europe and the U.S. is to fight tooth and nail any kind of assimilation into Western Culture and make it Islamic. This is a completely different attitude toward Americanization than was taken by the leaders of all other immigrant groups in the past

  • Donna Marie Lewis

    What I want to know is: where’s the polyandrous folks in all this ?

  • Sarah Webber

    Women are smart enough to know one spouse is enough. :)

  • Jon Swerens

    If polygamy is all right with the New York City mayor, it should be all right with everyone else.

  • Will

    Yes, I want to know why all the discussion talks like polyandrous marriage isn’t even an issue. If I know one, how many are there that I don’t know about?

  • Eli

    Donna, I think the polyandrous folks are nowhere to be found since, I would argue, the polyandrous situations are very different than the polygamous ones. I guess one would one call this “the closed secret”.
    Sarah, while women may know that one spouse is enough who’s to say that women don’t often have important things going on on the side, too? The milkman used to get a bad rap but perhaps there was a good reason for this. Going back to your earlier post, I think the concept of romantic love & marriage actually only began in the Romantic period and is still to this day a questionable premise. For most of our history, it would seem, marriage had next to nothing to do with romance and everything to do with practicality.

  • Will

    I don’t think that adultery has been “legalized” in most states (Connecticut being an exception). The laws tend to remain on the books, mainly because most politicians dare not be seen voting to repeal them.