Stories about polygamy tend to surge and ebb in the media, but they never fail to intrigue people. Recently in South Africa, a Zulu man married four women–all at once–making the most popular story on the BBC news website (you can watch the clip here). In the video, a male wedding guest gives a thumbs-up to the marriage(s), claiming that the “world” suffers from monogamous marriage breakdowns as a result of adultery. Later, the narrator serves up a classic: with all those wives, what man will have time to cheat? So, yes, it seems to be all about sex and keeping the man carnally satiated as to not go astray. But what do the wives have to say?
From the wives’ perspective, there is Hatijah Aam, founder of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Running what sounds like a matchmaking service, Hatijah herself had introduced her husband to a future co-wife, a mother of seven. The club has been successful at marrying men and women from neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, and even as far as Australia. The virtues of polygamy, according to her, echo the stuff in religious texts I’ve become so accustomed to: it helps single mothers, “old maids”, and former sex workers (a new addition!) out of what is ostensibly abject misery.
Looking at the social context in Malaysia, it’s understandable how polygynous relationships can thrive: women are chronically at an economic disadvantage, a female-initiated divorce is a difficult, laborious process, and if it is successful, women shoulder the stigma and burden of being fair game to any Malay-Muslim man. Pinning on former sex workers, single mothers, and divorcees the label “unwanted goods” says a lot about the precarious status women have in society; women are not only defined by their marital (and sexual) status, but also seem to lack agency to better themselves.
For a while I’ve been interested in what women in polygamous marriages have to say about their relationship with their husband, co-wives, and with their faith, particularly when feminist buzz words like “choice”, “rights”, and “consent” are used. Take for instance this argument: in a monogamous marriage, a woman has the right to choose her spouse, and so in principle a woman should also have the same kind of rights to allow her husband to marry another. It will be interesting when the role of rights and agency are raised in response to legislation against polygamy in numerous countries across the globe. There’s also an argument that “feminist” polygyny allows women “to have it all”: work hard and have a great arrangement with co-wives who will look after their kids (providing of course that the co-wives aren’t so career-minded).
Like polyamory and open marriages, polygamy is not common for obvious reasons, with jealousy being the main one. And while for the few women whose rights are respected and protected (in some countries), how do their choices impact on all other women in general? Will a concept of polygamy that is truly women-centric subvert a system in which some women see sharing a husband the only way out of economic or social hardship? Will every wife have a happy sex life? Tightening conditions on such marriages may appear as posing restrictions on a woman who wants to express her rights, but at the same restricts men from marrying women for exploitative reasons often disguised as noble ones. In Indonesia, laws are made increasingly lax to accommodate men who wish to tie the knot multiple times, even if they lack the financial means (or the guts) to tell their first wives.
Polygyny, alongside housewifery and pornography, is just one of the few issues women have been grappling with distinguishing between whether it’s feminist or not. And so a belief in ending oppression in all its many guises should be the compass of every feminist if one finds themselves lost. To end, I leave you with Hatijah Aam saying that polygamy should be something beautiful, rather than something disgusting. I say, fair enough–keeping in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.