Big Love: Appropriating Feminism in Advocating Polygamy

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.

  • http://www.5forfairness.org Anna

    This reminds me of Susan Moller Okin’s classic article, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” for 1)its references to research about how happy women in polygamous relationships really are and 2)her definition of feminism: “the belief that women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equally with men, and the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can.” Until that has been achieved in a culture – any culture! – I think it’s pretty hard to see polygamy as reconcilable with feminism.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    Nicely done. I myself am really interesting reading about women advocating for polygamy, which here in the US usually takes the form of fundamentalism Mormonism. BTW: Have you ever watched “Big Love”? THAT is a fascinating show!!

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    I say is polygyny works for the women (and the man) involved then I am all for it. As long is there is consent, choice and informed decisions then who I am to judge what is right for someone else?

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  • Alicia

    Rochelle,

    Thanks. What I’ve read and heard so far from a woman’s ‘feminist’ perspective on polygamy have been at odds with what I believe in. I think this is complicated further by legal systems that are not woman-friendly. I mean, if women can easily enter a polygamous marriage and see it as empowering, they should also be able to leave it as easily too. And yes, anyone who marries wants it to last forever and not divorce, but that’s my cynical (read: realistic) view of marriage.

    No, I haven’t seen Big Love yet. I’ll keep an eye out for that!

  • amirah

    i am totally an advocate for polygamy. mainly because its a right Allah gave a man and seriously if you say its wrong its kinda like your saying Allah is wrong and who really wants to go there?! my husband is not married to a co wife but it considering marrying an older woman with kids who is divorced and has been unable to get remarried (mainly because she has 2 kids) we will see how it works. me i am fine with it as long as he does as Allah perscribes i refuse to deny him his right because i wouldnt want him to deny me mine

  • http://vsthepomegranate.blogspot.com/ Joseph Shahadi

    @Jamerican Muslimah
    Cosign.

    Do I want to live in a plural marriage? Nope. Not even a little bit. But if others find that relationship configuration appealing, for whatever reason, then why should anyone have anything to say about it? I could make a similar argument to those opposed to same sex- marriage.

    None of the potential abuses often associated with polygamy–coercion and sexual exploitation– are specific to it. Plenty of women and girls all over the world suffer both of these abuses in monogamous marriage, so obviously it does not offer special protections. Coercion and sexual exploitation of women and girls should be challenged wherever they appear but I don’t see how polygamy is any better or worse than any other marriage for women in general.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I think the big problem I have is that, I don’t think polygamy does work for most people and too often any success stories are used as ammunition against those who caution against it.

    Muslim Matters has a current post (which is actually pretty good) on polygamy and there’s a fair few comments like that flying about:
    http://muslimmatters.org/2009/09/28/the-polygamist-fantasy-and-the-distressing-of-sisters/#comments

    Big Love is probably one of my favourite tv shows. Sadly they only showed series 1 in the UK. I managed to get series 2, but have yet to get series 3. Can any USians/Canadians help a sister out? :)

  • http://emancipatingmymind.wordpress.com shameema

    I think we need to distinguish between polygamy as an idea and polygamy in practice.

    As an idea as a Muslim Woman firstly, Islam allows for it and so it makes it hard to refute. 2) There are instances where I can see reasoning for why someone would take a second wife and why a woman would even allow it.

    In practice it is a gross abuse of women. The cases of people practicinsing polygamy that works is a drop in the ocean of all those cases where it doesn’t. This is what I have an issue with and want to see a change in this. In my community I am advocating for Imams to help in teh education process so that the manner in which polygamy is practiced changes. There is still a long long road ahead, we are only now just starting to talk about these issues and looking for solutions to this problem.

    Like Hatijah, there are lots of women who are happy to choose a co-wife for their husbands and are happy to be in polygamous marriages. As long as it is their choice and they are happy, I think thats what matters.

    It’s the women who don’t have the choice and are forced into this situation that we need to help.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Amirah – Polygamy is not a right, it is something Allah has permitted with stringent conditions. Hence, while it was a practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him), it is NOT a sunnah, as it is not something all Muslims are encouraged to do.

    Therefore, if you feel you are not able to meet those conditions, or that the practice of polygamy would be detrimental to your family life, then you are not just encouraged, but commanded to refuse polygamy.

    J. M & Joseph – I see your point in theory, but in practice, polygamy is often detrimental to the well being of the women involved. I firmly believe that very few people are suited to p marriage.

    I’m fine with it as an option for some, but so often it is presented as a solution for many and that makes me deeply uneasy.

  • Zahra

    I like this piece, especially its interest in not looking at polygamy itself but at the larger social context of what rights women have.

    And building off what Joseph says, we should never use polygamy as an excuse to ignore the wrongs that happen within monogamous marriages.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    @Safiya Outlines: If you’re cool with with steeling/borrowing/freesourcing tv off the internet, I have Big Love links for you. It’s such weird/awesome show.

  • http://csifblog.wordpress.com Farrah

    I don’t see how polygamy can be fair or feminist if women cannot also have multiple partners? We always hear about how men have “sexual needs” and so they need multiple women to satisfy them. I have needs, too, and like many women, my partner is often working late and doesn’t have time to satisfy them. And what if, like some men, I like variety, too?

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  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Safiya, but here is the problem: Do we have the right to decide that polygyny is “detrimental to the well being of women involved” or do the parties involved? Again, I think if there are consenting adults involved and no one is being exploited or manipulated then why is it anyone else’s beef? I think the level of resistance that exists in the Muslim community when it comes to polygyny contributes to the failure of said relationships. In a sense, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy- Muslims display an aversion to it, couples don’t receive support or encouragement, and when the marriage or marriages fall apart we point to the couple and say; “See, it doesn’t work.” I am not suggesting that everyone is suited to polygyny or that everyone should practice it but I do think it is a viable option for some. Can Muslims accept it?

    The other thing I want to say is this: I have discovered the reason why we hardly ever hear about successful cases of polygyny. Oftentimes the people who are successfully practicing it have to distance themselves from other Muslims and their opinions, projections, influences and actions lest it undermine what is working well for the people involved. Sad but true.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    “Again, I think if there are consenting adults involved and no one is being exploited or manipulated then why is it anyone else’s beef?”

    So I assume you also oppose the criminalization of adultery, homosexuality, prostitution, and premarital sex…?

    At the end of the day, I can’t tell people how to live their lives, nor would I want to.

    But there are a couple problems: One, Legalizing polygamy affects all women in the society, and I think that’s the part that’s missing from this discussion. What happens to women who do not want to enter polygamy in countries in which polygamy is legal? What about the children of such marriages who have no choice?

    The second problem is that currently, societies that have legalized polygamy have also criminalized other “consensual” sexual relationships such as homosexuality, adultery, premarital sex, prostitution, etc. They also prevent women from leaving polygynous relationships via discriminatory divorce laws (e.g. Iran). How can you talk about choice when so many other choices are banned to you? How can you talk about choice entering a relationship when you have no choice to leave it?

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    J. M – It definitely could work for some people, I agree. My concern, is that a lot of times those wanting p marriage are brothers, and they don’t necessarily want it for pious reasons.

    Sisters are being told that it’s unIslamic to refuse p marriage. Just look at sister Amirah’s comment, according to her, saying no to p marriage is like saying no to Allah. When that sort of thinking enters a marriage, things are unlikely to go well. It’s religious blackmail.

    Just to repeat what I said before, I’m fine with it as an option for some, but so often it is presented as a solution for many and that makes me deeply uneasy.

  • Maria P.

    While the intent might be good (to facilitate the care of widows, orphans and whatnot), where I am, it seems to be more of a status thing. How rich is our MP? Rich enough that he has four (young) wives and nineteen children, all living in the lap of luxury. Let’s drive by his compound and marvel at all the houses. Wow. That’s power!

    The local opposition leader is a friend’s uncle. He only has three so far, so he’s waiting ’til he can get higher in the party hierarchy.

    I’m skeptical, as usual. Maybe there are some folks who are following the spirit of the permission, but I suspect they’re the exceptions.

    And on the legal side of it — in jurisdictions where polygamy is not recognized by the law, what protections does a non-primary wife have? If it’s a small community, there could be adat law and such, but what about people in big cities, in non-Islamic settings or in other countries? Seems like a really precarious position.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Maria: I think in your MP’s position, wives are just seen as another form of property that reflects social status. That’s just icky.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Rochelle,

    I don’t think it’s fair or intellectually honest to place polygyny on the same scale as relationships deemed unlawful by Islam. What are you really suggesting here? Did the Prophet (s.a.w.) and his companions (r.a.) practice something that was illicit? And are suggesting since polygyny has been abused in SOME places it should be abandoned in ALL PLACES? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

  • Rochelle

    I was making the point that the fact that is a relationship is consentual amongst adults is not the only standard you are using to deem a relationship appropriate. You are also using a theological and religious standard. Which is fine but you should be clear about that.

    The prophet did not enage in illicit activity for his time. But not everything he engaged in or sanctioned is appropriate for today and i suspect you would agree- do you condone slavery for example? as others have mentioned, just because the prophet engaged in polygyny does not mean that banning polygyny today would imply that the prophet and his companions were doing something wrong.

  • Zahra

    @Rochelle–

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for making that point about slavery. That slavery is wrong seems so obvious today, but we shouldn’t forget how difficult a question that was one or two hundred years ago, and how many devout Muslims found themselves on opposite sides of the debate.

  • laila

    My ex brother-in-law and uncle used polygamy as a cover to have an affair! They had absolutely NO permission from their wives to enter into another relationship. My sister’s consent was NOT required for this polygamous marriage. The cleric even said “you don’t need to tell your wife, her consent is not important”. Not to mention because of her gender it was difficult for her to obtain a divorce.

    Polygamy has been abused in ALL places not just some places.
    Uzma Mariam Ahmed a contributing writer on Altmuslimah gives many examples in the article “Connections between sex trafficking, prostitution and polygamy”. As she states sex trafficking and prostitution are worldwide problems that are not unique to Muslims but “they are, however, harder to identify when they take shelter within the confines of Islamic marriages.” Such as using polygamy as a cover to have an affair.

    The fact that polygamy is used to conceal wrongdoing makes it as reprehensible as the crime because the misdeed/abuse often goes undiscovered and results in harm to others. In these instances we do throw out baby and keep the bath water.

    You can check out the article at
    http://www.altmuslimah.com/a/b/a/3139/

  • http://n/a Ismaliya Ismail

    “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. ”

    I am Muslim women would like to correct the author comments above.. women in Malaysia are not chronically at an economic disadvantage. In fact statistic have shown women in universities are more compare to the the men. Higher education=better income. More and more women are on hold on marriage due to their income are usually more compare to the men.

    Polygamy thrive in Malaysia as the goverment allows and acknowlegde the marriage.

    Normally polygamy happens as the husband and second wife flee to neighbour country Thailand to get married as some state in Malaysia require the first wife permission in order the second/third/fourth marriage to happen.

  • Alicia

    Ismaliya Ismail,

    I’d like to correct you by saying that higher education does not promise, or equals to, better income. By stating the obvious i.e. women over-represent in universities by outnumbering men is not enough. That is far too simplistic. Women are not fairly represented in the more “important”, higher-paying, highly influential, decision-making jobs. I don’t want to sound rude, but I think some good statistics on how women fare on the job market and how they represent in high ranking positions would be a better indicator on how well women in Malaysia are doing economically. While some women personally decide to get higher education and then forgo a career for marital reasons, many more are denied the opportunity to reach for bigger things in their careers. The main reason is the fact that women are expected to not aim so high, because women should have other priorities to be committed to (read: husband and children).


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