By Clara Alm

Questions about sex and the ways of living have long been in center of culture clashes and western law, with contraception, abortion and same-sex rights being hot topics of the past and present. Many today connect polygamy with being something negative for individuals and society – and though there may be some truth in it, it still remains important to highlight all aspects of polygamy, the history and the cultural aspects.. 

‘Polys’ equals many and ‘gamos’ equals marriage in ancient greek. Polygamy exists in mainly two forms: polygyny, where a man is married to more than one wife at the same time and polyandry, where instead a woman has several husbands. Historically, polygyny has been most common. It is cross-cultural and worldwide in its scope, being very common among the Animist and Muslim communities in West Africa, for example. However, it is much more than an “exotic” African custom. There is a belief among some anthropologists that polygamy was once the norm in human history.

Many people today connect polygamy with sex. The sexual aspect of it, however, has historically not been the primary purpose. Instead, polygamy has been affiliated with status and wealth, as women and their children helped in traditional caregiving support, such as working the land. However, with colonisation and westernisation, many cultures have been forever altered. The imposition of state laws on aboriginal groups has marked an end for many polygamist cultures, as these in many cases has stood in contradiction to the Western world’s social structure and the idea of the nuclear family. Polygamy was seen as an attribute of primitiveness by the Christian missionaries suppressing it, and the system of property ownership that polygamy made up was seen as a threat to colonial interests. 

In addition, urbanisation, migration and external pushes through different development projects, for example towards the nuclear household provided by kinship systems, has undermined the traditional structures and institutions, resulting in families being under more pressure to find other solutions that suits their care-needs properly. The spread of Christianity and Europe-based legal codes can thus be said to have resulted in a sociocultural streamlining of many of the world’s societies. 

Polygamy is not legal in all places where it is practised. In many cases it is instead recognised in customary law or religious/traditional practices, made legitimate in an age that didn’t care about all citizens equally. Having more than one wife was a sign of power and wealth, and still is. More reasons for why it has been popular in many African cultures is its positive impacts on agrarian economies. It is easier to farm the land with a big family. And the more wives a man has, the more political alliances he makes. Through polygamous marriages women in many cases have more personal autonomy, helping them to focus on trading and lending more manpower to farming activities. The legal status of being a married woman can also be a form of protection, with larger households usually guaranteeing more safety. 

Plural marriage often has a patriarchal structure with polyandry being the most common form, and it hasn’t been known for strengthening women’s rights. It has received criticism from feminists and neo-liberals arguing that it is laying a foundation for social structures that will in the end undermine social freedom, equal rights and democracy. The reasons many women in polygamous marriages have given as to why is often connected to a sense of obligation, a need to live up to religious or cultural duties. And history has been patriarchal and man-dominated: there was a desire and need to have and show power, to guarantee their household safety with a male heir as well as to have their sexual desires satisfied. Reasons that can easily be questioned in the world today. Still, at the core of this tradition are values and customs that promote reproduction, much due to the fact of high mortality rates caused by for example unfavorable climate and deadly diseases which has made a population reduction in tribes a serious concern for a long time. 

However, leaving the telling of history and culture up to a Eurocentric perspective can be dangerous, and though polygamy may be problematic in several ways, national and cultural sovereignty is of great importance. Polygamy should be seen from the viewpoint of the affected people, respecting culture and not giving in to the people thinking one culture is superior to another. There is enough evidence to show that polygyny is problematic with women being treated very much as property and doing most of the workload. Recent family law reforms have been made on the African continent, showing efforts to promote and protect women’s rights as defined in international human rights law whilst still respecting the practice of polygyny. Even so, the view on the legality of polygamy for many in these cultures has shifted with many now considering polygamy less socially and morally legitimate than monogamy, making it a factor of Western cultural imperialism. Seeing polygamy in its historical and cultural context, and how feminism and European colonialism has changed the narrative around it in different ways, will this traditional lifestyle survive into the future, or will it remain a thing of the past? 

Illustration: Anton Wärdig

Clara Alm

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