Should some marriages be scare-quoted?

Many moons ago, when I was asking questions about why Religion News Service put “religious liberty” in quotes, defenders of the practice said it was just a way of signaling that while some people believe that a given issue deals with religious liberty, others do not. It’s a way to indicate that one is not taking sides on the matter. Astute readers noticed that if this were the policy, than we should see quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage.”

But we never see such quotes in mainstream media stories, even though the key to abortion battles is whether there is, in fact, a “right” to abortion. And with marriage issues, it’s the same thing. Supporters of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously think it’s a possibility that marriage law can be so changed while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility to have two people of the same sex in a marriage. And yet putting quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” would not be seen as neutrality at all, would it?

All that is background to a piece a reader sent in from the BBC this week, headlined “Kenyan trio in ‘wife-sharing’ deal.”

The quotes are all over the place in the article about two Kenyan men and the woman they both desire to marry:

Two Kenyan men have signed an agreement to “marry” the same woman…

Lawyers said the “marriage” would only be recognised if they could prove polyandry – a woman having more than one husband – was part of their custom…

People have reacted with shock to the “marriage”, arguing that it is not acceptable in terms of their culture, religion or the law, he says.

Defending the “marriage”, Mr Mwendwa told the BBC Focus on Africa programme that while he may acting in breach of the law, he had decided to enter into a contract with Mr Kimani to end their rivalry.

Later, though:

Community policing officer Adhalah Abdulrahman persuaded the two men to marry the woman after he saw them fighting over her in Mombasa county, the local Daily Nation newspaper reports.

The reader who sent it in:

This article is about two men marrying one woman in Kenya.  I’m unclear on the jurisdiction here, whether there really is legal standing for it, and whether there is any opposition to this other than figuring out if it is legal.  Also, can one man marry more than one woman in this jurisdiction?  But the biggest thing to me: how come the BBC gets to use quotes around the word marriage in this case?

The reader nailed it. The story is presented in such a manner as to ignore the specifics of cultural, religious or legal opposition. We don’t learn if men can have more than one spouse. We have no idea what the religious views of the individuals in question — much less the community — are. And, more than anything, what are the quotes doing around the word marriage here? Or put another way, why here and not elsewhere?

One woman and two men image via Shutterstock.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “‘Because,’ he explained, ‘shut up.’” And I’m afraid that’s about all the explanation we’re going to get.

  • wlinden

    In the reign of James the Second
    It was generally reckoned
    As a rather serious crime
    To marry two blokes at one time.


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