Monday, February 15, 2010


Fareed Zakaria hosts my favorite news show Sundays on CNN, Global Public Square (GPS). I would highly recommend the show for anyone interested in current events; it is the best show on television for that in my opinion. Zakaria always has great conversations about relevant issues with incredibly smart people, and somehow always manages to land phenomenal interviews with major world leaders. Anyway, on this Sunday's show Fareed was interviewing South African President Jacob Zuma, and he asked a question about Zuma's polygamy. Zuma has three wives, and Fareed framed the question as such that it implied an assumption that polygamy is unfair to women. This is an assumption that I would like to challenge. I will look at the case of historical Europe as the proximal example for Western society in general.

Polygamy was banned hundreds of years ago, and the push to ban the practice came from the Christian church. And yet, the predominant assumption today is that the ban on polygamy protects the rights of women. Do these facts not contradict each other? What history books are full of examples of ancient European men or the church for that matter concerning themselves with the rights of women? Women were treated as slaves for the most part in middle ages, but we're to believe that somehow in this one instance men and the church had a feminist urge and advanced women's rights by banning polygamy? With that deed done, it would be another thousand years before giving women the right to vote? Please!

If a ban on polygamy is not to benefit women, then who is it to benefit? Men, of course. Monogamy benefits men, because it ensures that every man has a wife. The ban on polygamy is the most ancient workers movement. Before social security, communists, or labor unions, there was the ban on polygamy. It was a redistribution of wealth (women, as they were a form of wealth in those days) away from the rich elite and to the common working man. I emailed a friend who has experience with polygamist cultures in Africa; here is what she had to say:

"In rural Tanzania in Masaai land polygamy is common and it works not only does it work but I would argue in Tanzanian society it works better than monogamy. First of all there are more family members to contribute to income, childcare, breastfeeding and animal husbandry but more importantly there tends to be less physical and sexual abuse for women. The very fact that the more wives that a man has results in greater respect and higher societal standing encourages men to keep as many wives as he can and in order to do that he has to keep them all happy, which means their own house, food, animals, children etc. Women love it because they don't have to do all the work. Men love it because well why wouldn't they."

Inherent in her email to me is the reality of polygamy - there is increased competition among men for females. While in our system, the losers of the competition still end up getting married, in societies practicing polygamy, that is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, a man who mistreats his wife may lose her to another man who treats his well. Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you have two men; one is hard working, kind, and attractive. The other man is lazy, potentially abusive, and unattractive. Now take two women and give them the following option. They can either flip a coin and randomly assort one per man, or they can both agree to marry the more desirable one. This makes it easy to imagine the benefits for women of a polygamistic system. And anyway, at least if the women do decide to assort one per man, if one abuses his wife it is easier for her to leave him.

The idea of polygamy might seem repulsive, especially for women who were brought up in such a strongly monogamist society, one which idealizes the romantic connection between two people. The prospect of homosexual relations is similarly repulsive for many heterosexual men (it doesn't sound especially good to me) in our society. Yet, we know that in ancient Greece, it was common and expected for homosexual relations to take place between heterosexual men. Cultural norms may be strong enough to generate feelings of revulsion for the abnormal, but those things may still yet be relative to our culture.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

There are still lots of things that can go wrong in polygamy, some of which were documented in recent legal actions. Wastage of fertile years, for one. If a man decides to snub a wife in a system where she cannot easily transfer her allegiance, she can end up with fewer children than she wanted. The distribution of being able to work outside the home vs. being able to stay home with kids can be touchy, especially if there is dependence upon the income of a woman working outside. Abuse is harder to flee if it is not easy for the woman to transfer her allegiance. Plus, what if childbearing or abuse takes a toll on her looks, and there are ample younger women to choose from? Also, in many polygamous systems, the woman's choice is not paramount. Some people perceive polygamy and early marriage as solutions for out of wedlock sexual activity and adultery, but why would marrying a girl to someone she doesn't favor end an infatuation? As I see it, the problems of competition in relationships may be muted in polygamy, but they don't go away.

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