1 – The practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time
A word that sends shivers down the spines of the masses, invokes moral outrage, and divides us. It is a concept deemed as foreign, and thought to be rooted in the traditions of the ‘other’, an alternative lifestyle that ‘some’ people practice because they are ‘different’. When given the difficult task of arguing for a polygamous lifestyle, my default reaction was “where on earth do I start?”
I dug deep. The arguments against polygamy are out there in abundance, unlike the (perhaps limited) arguments in support of it. I asked my friends to share their thoughts with me on the matter and although I received a couple of surprising and intriguing responses, the vast majority concluded that it just wasn’t for them. I found countless articles hailing from the religious, to the outright racist an homophobic, to the simply Puritan explaining in great detail why polygamous relationships were ‘damaging’; ‘indecent’; ‘immoral’; ‘outrageous’; ‘abnormal’; ‘impractical’; ‘unsafe’; ‘unnatural’; ‘ungodly’; ‘un-Western’; ‘bestial’; ‘greedy’’; ‘scandalous’; and ‘akin to human sacrifice’ – the list goes on.
“Our common understanding of polygamy more often than not involves the women in the relationship being dealt a bad hand…”
Having digested all of that, I thought long and hard about the potential benefits (besides the obvious things like more sex and a variety of sexual partners, if you see those as positives) of a polygamous arrangement. It is no secret that our common understanding of polygamy more often than not involves the women in the relationship being dealt a bad hand and a ticket to eternal subordination and competition. Polygamy as we know seems to be structurally inegalitarian in theory and in practice and in the vast majority of cases across the world polygyny – the marriage of men to multiple wives – is what is observed.
According to the George Murdock Ethnographic Atlas, of 1,231 global societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 practiced occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 societies observed polyandry. As we can see, one of the most compelling arguments against polygamy is the strong tendency to favour men and objectify women, turning them into status symbols of male wealth, power, and desirability.
“What else could explain our attraction to lots of different people, even if we are a happy half of a monogamous relationship already?”
But what if polygamy was polygamy in the sense of one being polyamorous? Loving multiple people? What if we removed associations of exclusively being linked to marriage as an institution and took it to mean multiple mating, as it does in the animal kingdom (yes, we are part of the animal kingdom)? A popular argument against polygamy is that it is unnatural. Interestingly it is actually monogamy that goes against our natural instincts. What else could explain our attraction to lots of different people, even if we are a happy half of a monogamous relationship already? Social conditioning has taught us that it is wrong to – at least openly – participate in a polygamous lifestyle and with that it has also been enshrined into de jure law. What if in practice polygamy was cooperative and empowering, the embodiment of ‘it takes a whole village to raise’ a child? What if no wife was favoured over the other and instead a spirit of sisterhood was fostered? If this were ever possible, perhaps polygamy would look a lot different to us. In countries like Senegal, nearly 47 per cent of marriages are classed as ‘group marriages’. In the global context, acceptance of polygamy is relatively common. Should we really be morally outraged by what two or more consenting adults choose to do with their lives and how they express their sexuality so long as they are not harming or potentially harming anybody?
A good friend of mine shared her tales of polygamy with me and for her the experience was very positive and honest. Both men knew about the other and displayed no jealousy (to her knowledge) because each lived in different cities. Perhaps distance and the casual nature of the relationships were the key to their success. It was refreshing to hear from someone for whom an alternative lifestyle has worked. Another friend of mine said polygamy could prove to be expensive and that our society simply does not have the social structure needed for it to work widely. Perhaps we are afraid that chaos would ensue. Jealousy can be a very powerful emotion. Let us not pretend that we are unaware that many people keep mistresses and extra-marital lovers. Although we do not openly condone this as a society, we are more or less numb to it; so people do already engage in alternative lifestyles – it’s just unfortunate that the current incarnations of such lifestyles involve hurting others.
With clear boundaries, a removal of the gender bias, a more cooperative arrangement, emphasis on safe and consensual sex, (open) polygamy could one day be less of a taboo in Western societies – an interesting development for Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas’ stats no doubt.
– Siana Bangura
Siana Bangura is a writer and blogger from London. She is the editor of ‘No Fly on the WALL’ and ‘Don’t Go There Siana’.
This article originally featured in the October-November Issue of NU People Magazine
Download the NU People Magazine Digital Edition
Available FREE Now Apple And Android Devices