Polygamy: A woman's right?

While digging out the image library on my hard drive, I found some pictures taken of an Indonesian ‘edutainment tabloid’ called Poligami. I found the line, Hak dan Kebutuhan Perempuan (the rights and needs of women) across the cover of the magazine interesting – mainly because here polygamy is pitched as pro-women rather than the more conventional male supremacist’s right to multiple wives. polygami1

Since the days of Raden Adjeng Kartini, polygamy has long remained a bone of contention for Muslim feminists and the conservative religious leaders in Indonesia. Currently, polygamy is sanctioned by Indonesian law in cases where the wife is ill, infertile, or absent though these restrictions are rarely enforced.

polygami2

Translation (clockwise): 'God's love is the key to the beauty of polygamy', 'Wives can increase the the number of women', 'Polygamy is humane', 'A doctor-candidate from a modest polygamous family;.

While many women’s organisations in Indonesia are far from monolithic and don’t unanimously wish to ban the practice, many call for a critical examination of the detrimental effects of polygamy citing cases of psychological damage, poverty, and unharmonious households.

polygami3

Translation: This country needs many polygamy volunteers. Conflicts, natural disasters, poverty, and 'old' virgins are the serious problems afflicting our country's women. Thus, this country needs volunteers for polygamous marriages to overcome this nationwide female problem.

The arguments for and against polygamy are based on the same verse of Surat An-Nisa’ 4:3 that allows men to marry up to four women while at the same time admonishing them to restrict the number to one, if they fear they cannot be equitable to all wives:

Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice. (Surat An-Nisa’ 4:3)

Defenders of the practice often take a more literal approach to the verse above to justify their God-given rights while those who are more critical (like myself) emphasise the second half of the verse and read it within the underlying framework of the Quran that promotes the rights and justice for all woman and mankind.

Of course, there are many ways to frame polygamy as positive and female-centric as possible. I am convinced that the concept of ‘women’s rights’ is articulated differently in this magazine and in pro-polygamy rhetoric, but I do wonder: What rights do women in polygamous marriages have that women in monogamous ones don’t?

21 thoughts on “Polygamy: A woman's right?

  1. OK,

    I’m polygamous and am in a full-time, live-in polygynous relationship with two women, so I might be able to address some of this. Though, since our relationship is neither endorsed nor condemned by our religion(s), the Muslim aspect of the post above will need someone else to answer.

    So…“What rights do women in polygamous marriages have that women in monogamous ones don’t?”

    I would say that they have no rights that women in monogamous relationships don’t have, but that they have the same rights as the monogamous relationships have.

    On the other hand, they do have the right to suggest or request that their husband “acquire” another wife if they desire him to.

  2. jonolan,

    Thanks for commenting. But from someone in a polygynous relationship such as yourself, I was expecting something rather more enlightening than:

    “I would say that they have no rights that women in monogamous relationships don’t have, but that they have the same rights as the monogamous relationships have.

    On the other hand, they do have the right to suggest or request that their husband “acquire” another wife if they desire him to.”

  3. LOL

    It’s hard to “enlightening” about something that is actually quite prosaic. There’s really not much at all different about a polygamous household as compared to a monogamous one – except at the very pragmatic level.

    Of course, maybe that IS enlightening after all now that I think about it.

  4. I seriously doubt whether polygamy is ever truly pragmatic. Polygyny is culturally determined by socio-economic conditions in which men have considerably more power than women. That is why polyandry is virtually non-existent in all times and places, being limited to a very few rich women in a very few societies. While I can see no reason to prevent any number of people entering into a group marriage by the free choice of all involved, imbalance of power in the supermajority of polygynous relationships makes free choice an impossibility.

    In societies where polygyny is widely practised, social pressure coupled with the socio-economic incompetence of unmarried women, divorcees and widows makes the ‘choice’ to enter a polygynous relationship little different from economically motivated prostitution.

    In societies where polygamy is atypical or even outlawed, the sparse occurrence of polygamy is more often predicated on the emotional dominance of one member, usually a man, over two or more emotionally submissive others, usually women.

    This is not to say that polygamy is in fact wrong, but that its emotional complexity is often such that not all parties can consent freely to it for a lengthy period. Thus, to institutionalise such arrangements is dangerous. I can see the contextual wisdom for Qur’an 4:3, permitting the culturally accepted Arab practice of polygyny, yet firstly limiting it, and secondly cautioning against its emotional complexity.

    As for Poligami magazine vaunting that polygyny meets women’s right and needs, it is total spin. The only needs met are a man’s socially conditioned masculinity to have a bevy to cook, clean, have sex with and bear children, and a woman’s economic condition that offers poverty and social exclusion as the only alternative. As for rights, this word is used to often without thought of what can and must be inalienable rights. It is noteworthy that Poligami does not at any point discuss what these needs and rights might be. It would just be too embarrassing if it tried.

  5. “In societies where polygamy is atypical or even outlawed, the sparse occurrence of polygamy is more often predicated on the emotional dominance of one member, usually a man, over two or more emotionally submissive others, usually women.”

    Some days I wish that you were right in that assertion, Gareth.😉

    Of course I think there’s a big difference between polygamy as prescribed by a religion – with its often attendant strict gender roles – and that freely entered into by people because they choose it.

  6. “Of course I think there’s a big difference between polygamy as prescribed by a religion – with its often attendant strict gender roles – and that freely entered into by people because they choose it.”

    @jonolan,

    Many would like to think so, but that’s not entirely true. In a religious context or otherwise, men as well as women are very conscious of what they view as a willingness to enter a polygamous relationship. But it’s not about free choice either. It’s not free will if decision-making is influenced by choosing from a range of finite options and by one’s surrounding circumstances.

    If you’re an undereducated, unemployed woman in a fairly isolated area where being single might be a threat to yourself and others, being wife number three to a wealthy village chief doesn’t sound like a bad deal, does it?

    Though all this doesn’t make polygamy good if what necessitates it is economic duress and social pressure as a result of society’s failure to provide for its most vulnerable individuals.

  7. Well, cycads, I and my wives are Americans; we’re not anywhere close to being in the position you described so it’s a bit different.

    But… you say, “It’s not free will if decision-making is influenced by choosing from a range of finite options and by one’s surrounding circumstances.”

    All decision-making is made from a range of finite options and by one’s surrounding circumstances. People have to deal with the situation that they’re placed into by fate or circumstance and make the choices that seem best for them.

  8. jonolan,

    Hurray for you then! Thank your privilege stars for giving you a far wider range of options than most traditional polygamists can ever have.

    Now, jonolan, this post is NOT about people with economic, social, ethnic, and gender privilege who can easily view polygamy with pragmatism. This post about the appropriation of feminism in extremist rhetoric to justify polygamy in societies where most women have none of the privileges mentioned above. I would appreciate it you try to put yourself in the shoes of Muslim women and hopefully understand what polygamy might mean to them, rather than taking this comment thread to laud the freedoms Americans have to choose how they organise their relationships.

  9. cycads,

    Sorry. I was stating my background as a caveat to any applicability of any further opinion of mine on the issue at hand.

    “This post about the appropriation of feminism in extremist rhetoric to justify polygamy”

    What extremism? I’ve read and re-read the post and can find no examples of extremism in it.

    Also, what social or economic class of Muslim – since most Muslim societies practice polygamy – women should I try to identify with? What are the circumstances of my “alter-ego?”

    Am I to be a sub-Saharan tribeswoman presented with the choice of a husband – polygamy irrelevant in this case – or starvation?

    Am I to be Yemeni girl sold off as a third wife in order to pay off my father’s debts?

    Am I a fairly well-off Indonesian woman who’s husband travels and prefers to keep a second wife in another city as opposed to visiting brothels?

    I’m really not trying to be sarcastic, but there are so many different possibilities and circumstances – unless one is uniformly against polygamy in the first place.

    .. and of course, like any relationship, it can be exploited horribly. I polygamy exploited more than monogamy? Probably not if one factored in the cultural biases and basis.

  10. jonolan: cycads isn’t asking you to identify with anything other than yourself (and you come from a place of privilege).

    The point isn’t “how pragmatic polygamy is in circumstances where all involved parties are equal” but “what benefits does a woman get from polygamy when she’s in a position under duress due to non-equal circumstances”.

    You’re pretty much dismissing the power dynamics of the latter question because your own cushy circumstances allow you to participate in a very problematic institution without much ill consequence.

  11. Alright, Jha – but how does the polygamy differ from monogamy when she’s in a position under duress due to non-equal circumstances?

    OK, let’s imagine that I’m a Muslim man is some “less privileged” nation and that I demand from my wife that she accept the fact that I’m taking a second wife. How does that fundamentally differ from forcing her to do anything else that she truly doesn’t want to?

    Within the bounds of the same fiction, if I prefer more sex than than my wife is willing to provide, what is the difference between demanding that she satisfy me anyway (see Afghanistan) and taking a second wife?

    It seem to me that polygamy, no matter the culture or nation it is in, isn’t the problem. It’s at most a symptom.

    Then again, in some sub-Saharan tribes a man is expected to have as many wives as he can support – in order to provide for as many women as possible. A working, if poor, solution to a societal problem…

  12. Anyone who puts the issue of privilege in inverted commas obviously doesn’t take it seriously and is close to entering troll territory. jonolan, don’t go there.

    Jha,

    I admire your patience and willingness to respond to jonolan’s previous comments because I had very nearly given up.

    But out of the goodness of my heart, I haven’t.

    jonolan,

    “What extremism? I’ve read and re-read the post and can find no examples of extremism in it.”

    I didn’t have to spell it out for you, jonolan – I did say that pro-polygamists have a propensity to take the Quran literally (a hallmark of extremism).

    Anyway, you do arrive at some strong points: polygamy often looks like a solution to certain societal problems where women are in a position of weakness. I suppose not many would ask what puts women in such a position in the first place. But everything becomes a sad cycle if the answer to that question hinges on the excuses for biological determinism.

  13. Alright, Jha – but how does the polygamy differ from monogamy when she’s in a position under duress due to non-equal circumstances?

    That’s the point. She’s under duress. It doesn’t differ because she doesn’t have a choice anyway. Which is the problem. She shouldn’t be under duress. Were all women as privileged as your partners to be independent and make their marital choices to enter a polygynous relationship of their own free will, we wouldn’t be asking the question “what rights does a woman have within the institution of polygamy?” – we might well be asking “for what possible pragmatic reason might a woman enter an intimate relationship within which she would have to share her husband with someone else?”

    Within the bounds of the same fiction, if I prefer more sex than than my wife is willing to provide, what is the difference between demanding that she satisfy me anyway (see Afghanistan) and taking a second wife?

    Assuming your wife would really rather not share you with anybody else? None. Why? Because she wouldn’t be satisfied with the outcome either way.

    You want to have more sex than your partner is willing to provide? You find another partner. But making demands or doing something she doesn’t really want you to do (e.g. taking a second wife) because it puts her in the spot of having to compete for your attention for intimate moments, is unfair. That is what most women have to face in these unequal circumstances that I speak of.

    Then again, in some sub-Saharan tribes a man is expected to have as many wives as he can support – in order to provide for as many women as possible. A working, if poor, solution to a societal problem…

    This idea has some merit – in those areas, a woman without a husband is at a severe disadvantage. Allowing men to take more than one wife so they can provide for as many women as possible, protecting them, is definitely a bandaid in the guise of protecting women. And I’d say that that would be really the only pragmatic reason a woman in those circumstances would consent to being anything other than an only wife.

    You use the word “fiction” – I do not think the word means what you think it means.

    cycads: Well, I just got in on the conversation. If he doesn’t get it after this post, you’d probably be better off giving up, because then it would be clear he doesn’t want to get it.

  14. cycads,

    A literal interpretation of a religious text is not necessarily an extremist position. In point of fact, you bring that up in your own post since you describe differences in the focus or weight of different part of the same sura, but don’t venture away from a literal interpretation of it in your argument.

    Jha,

    Yes, that’s the point! She’s under duress. Polygamous or monogamous, either way the woman is in a constrained and effectively subservient role or position.

    I refer back to my original comment:

    So…“What rights do women in polygamous marriages have that women in monogamous ones don’t?”

    I would say that they have no rights that women in monogamous relationships don’t have, but that they have the same rights as the monogamous relationships have.

    A lack of rights is a lack of rights, et al, whether it be to not share her husband or to decide to not have sex with him.

    As for “fiction” – I was referring a continuance of the fantasy referred to in the paragraph above, “OK, let’s imagine that I’m a Muslim man is some “less privileged” nation…” That is all.

    Cycads and Jha,

    You both seem to hate the very idea of polygamy, but during the conversation / debate/ argument it seems to me that your issues are actually with the underlying gender inequalities exhibited in many Muslim nations.

    We can, I believe, easily on agree on the fact that women in many of these countries are not treated equally or very well at all.

  15. jonolan: Exactly, so why think you can add to the conversation, when the underlying problem isn’t the polygamy but the gender equality, which leads some women to believe they have superior rights in the institution of polygamy?

    The original post called to examine what right women have in polygamy as opposed to monogamy – unless you’re a woman who believes she is in a better position due to polygamy, it’s presumptuous to assume you’ve got anything insightful to add.

    Unless you were here just to brag about your polygynous relationship or gain some pity for being the beleaguered only male. Which is also annoying, and not the point.

  16. Actually, Jha, my original post’s content said that women in polygamy have NO rights beyond those in monogamy, but no less either.

    For reasons that I’m loath to suggest the conversation devolved from there.

    Somehow, Jha, I think you would find anything a man said as less than insightful unless it was some form of apology. That’s quite sad since women can’t solve these problems on their own – anymore than men could.

  17. jonolan: Well, if that was what you meant, then direct communication – you did it wrong. If you had stopped at:

    I would say that they have no rights that women in monogamous relationships don’t have, but that they have the same rights as the monogamous relationships have.

    We probably would’ve gotten the idea (this is what I understand from your backpedaling). Not that it would have answered any questions, but if that had been the original spirit of your answer, it would’ve shone through.

    But you devolved with the “oh, but the wimmenz do have the upperhand of telling the husband to go get another wife lol!” bit. I found it quite insulting to the actual topic at hand (and you even continued that thread of thought). It was chockful of privilege that you got to merrily dismiss what was quite a serious issue – gender inequity in many polygamous institutions.

    If you’re going to turn up your nose at us getting the wrong idea, you should’ve checked to make sure you were giving off the right one in the first place.

    Maybe cycads has a different idea, but off-hand remarks trying to make light of your own situation do come off as dismissive of the larger issue at hand.

  18. I thought I’d return when the dust’s settled… The first comment did start things on a wrong foot. Saying that polygamy is no more different than monogamy but with the extra benefit of sexual variety from someone who lives in a US state that more or less allows it is pure arrogance is you ask me.

    As with the persistent talk of gender inequality in polygynous marriage; well, let’s just say it’s an inalienable aspect in the issue at hand and the constant focus on this blog, gender inequality that is. I suppose to better understand how being wife number four can be empowering is by reading the magazine itself. Before anyone says “hell, no!”, I think that despite its conservative overtones it’s important to learn something from it and find out alternative ways to female empowerment that might make sense to some women.

    And yes, I do not like the very idea of polygamy and I will my tear my husband to shreds (literally, if legally possible) if he dares suggest it. I personally think that an overwhelming majority of women don’t either (something primeval such as jealousy has probably got a lot to do with it).

  19. I personally feel that jealousy over other partners has to do with feelings of inferiority ingrained in women over milennia of being dependent on men – women get jealous because the men they’re forced to bind themselves to for economic support may withdraw that support, and men get jealous because their status banks on being able to provide that support better than other men. That’s my bit of evo-psych at work though.

    I don’t mind the idea of polygamy for people in general, but given our current ideals in place that love and commitment takes a lot of work, it just feels exhausting to have to commit that kind of attention to more than one partner! Why would anybody want to encourage that?

  20. Pingback: Jakarta (another bad idea from Malaysia) « THE JAKARTA -INDONESIA- URBAN BLOG

  21. its really simple to understand the mentality of those practicing and advocating polygamy Jonolan, with one simple question:

    can any of your wives practice polyandry?

    if YES then you are truely in a pragmatic relationship based on practicality and equal love and trust, and I commend you and wish you the best in your lives

    if NO then you are a male supremacist exerting your dominace over the areas of your life that you control, mascaraded as love, through emotional cohersion.

    and on that note, why cant wives in the muslim world practice polyandry to a limit of 4 husbands incorporating other married men, thus solving the problems of biological determination and consequences to these under class of women (in my opinion women in the muslim world?

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