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THE CASE AGAINST POLYGAMY

 

By Rosemary Ekosso

 

Monday, September 22, 2008.

 

Recently, the media carried a story of the man sentenced to death for refusing to divorce all but four of his wives. On 31 August, the BBC said that he had finally divorced 82 of them.

 

I read the story only last week and discussed it with some people. Our initial response was amusement. It is interesting to consider how conjugal rights of the more physical kind would be organised in such a household
The man also has “at least” 170 children. In order to have 170 children, you would have to be prepared to plan your nights with close attention to your wives’ cycles. I suggested, to some amusement, that he would need a special kind of software to organise how his wives would come to his bed.


After the amusement and the slightly off-colour jokes, however, the anger and disgust set in.

 

Polygamy is a fact of life, but no an immutable fact. It is, happily, on the wane. I suppose it might have evolved as a product of war, when as a result of men dying in large numbers, there were not enough to go round. I don’t know, and I am not really concerned about its origins in this write-up.


What I am concerned about is a strange, or perhaps not so strange, reaction from one of the people I was talking to. After the laughter had died down, he said: "But perhaps the women are happy as they are."


What he meant was that if the women were happy being one of 86 wives, who are we to tell them that they should not be?


Let’s go with that idea for a bit. I suppose, in spite of the terrible limitations that slaves suffered, that some of them enjoyed a measure of happiness. So it would have been a disservice to them to plant bad ideas like unfettered freedom in their heads, would it?


But polygamy is not slavery, some will say. It is a time-honoured tradition and we should not condemn it just because the white man tells us it is wrong.


Possibly true. But what kind of life is it to have one-eighty-sixth of a man’s love and support? How would it be to introduce yourself thus: Hello, I am the sixty-third wife or husband of Mr X?


Let’s follow the idea further. If ignorance is bliss, that is, if we should not put bad ideas into these women’s heads because it would make them unhappy, would it not mean by the same token that since introduction to formal education of some kind to a peasant or villager would make him think that he should entitled to more out of life, in order to keep the peasant happy and satisfied with his lot, he must be kept from education at all costs?
Is that not why black slaves were not allowed to learn how to read?


It seems to me that the idea is to keep the women ignorant so that we do not have to deal with the consequences of their acquiring knowledge. It would make this uncomfortable for those of us who feel secure in the knowledge that we are better than someone else and who would like to continue wielding some kind of power over their womenfolk. If a woman has the power to choose that we have, our world would come crashing down about our ears.


Talking of choice, how many of those wives actually choose to be what they are? What informs their choice?
We know that women are often taken to wife against their will either because a parent or relative sells them to some man for convenience or financial gain or because they are too young to make an informed choice. This is where the concept of informed consent comes in. So in order to go on benefiting from marrying off our sisters and daughters, we should keep them ignorant or disempowered enough that being a seventy-fifth wife appears to them to be a desirable goal in life, right?


Is it informed consent to be condemned into a way of life that you would not choose if you knew better? Do we have a right to say that people who make choices we ourselves would not make because of our superior knowledge should be left in ignorance? Who are we to hope that people should be denied knowledge because it would make us uncomfortable?


If it is folly to be wise in such circumstances, give me folly any day. I shall, at the very least, have the luxury of choosing the rope with which I shall be hanged. I have come to the conclusion that many of the traditions that people are most eager to preserve are those that protect their selfish interests. These selfish people are the reactionaries who are quick to tell you that the white man has destroyed our way of life and replaced it with something worse. That is true in some respects – chiefly with regard to economics and consumerism. But it is not true of everything.


Polygamy is a bad thing because it is unfair to women. It reduces them to chattels. It disempowers them. It reduces their access to economic goods. It must be difficult to know that you will never have the exclusive enjoyment of your husband’s attentions but that he can keep you exclusively to himself. I have been told that women are more accepting of the prospect of sharing a man. That’s self-serving nonsense and it is a tragedy that such a pernicious theory is propounded at all.


One last point. I recognise that these now divorced 82 women will have to fend for themselves, and to the (probably very limited) extent that their husband was able to provide for them, they will be out of pocket. It is fair to suppose that quite a few of them have very limited knowledge and ability to earn a living. So they will very likely be worse off materially speaking. But this would not have happened if they had been sent to school and afforded the opportunity to choose what kind of life to lead.


There is no valid excuse for polygamy in today’s world, and we know it. Let us stop pretending to protect the interests of women in such situations when we know full well that we are only thinking about preserving the status quo either because it does not impinge on our lives or because it is to our advantage.

 

Rosemary Ekosso is with the Internation Court of Justice, the Hague, Holland. She blogs at www.ekosso.com

 

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