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Polygamy refers to the “practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time” (Zeitzen 13). The practice of being married to more than one wife is referred to as polygyny. On the other hand, a marriage relationship in which a woman has more than one husband is referred to as polyandry. Generally, polygyny is very common in most parts of the world. Nearly 85% of communities in the world recognize polygynous marriages (Henrich, Boyd and Richerson 657-669).
By contrast, polyandrous marriages are very rare. Polygamy is one of the oldest cultural practices that are likely to persist throughout the 21st century. Despite being criminalized in the western world, as well as, some African and Asian countries, men continue to embrace plural marriages. Those who oppose polygamy believe that it is an outdated cultural practice that leads to social deprivation and antagonism in the family.
However, those who support polygamy perceive it as a solution to social and cultural issues such as prostitution and adultery. This paper will discuss the arguments for and against polygamy. The discussion will consider cultural, economic, evolutionary, social, and legal perspectives on polygamy. The discussion will support the thesis/ premise that polygamy should be decriminalized to enhance social and economic prosperity.
The evolutionary perspective indicates that polygyny has always been part of the human history. The Bible and the Quran indicate that famous religious leaders such as Abraham, King Solomon, King David, and Prophet Muhammad were polygynous (Milton 42). Some psychologists and evolution scientists argue that polygamy is innate among men (Milton 43). Thus, men get involved in plural marriages as a response to their natural desires rather than to commit a crime.
Empirical studies indicate that polygyny has a positive correlation with the extent to which the males of various animal species are larger or taller than their female counterparts (Milton 47). Specifically, polygyny is high among animal species whose males are significantly larger than their female counterparts and vice versa.
Generally, “men are at least 10% taller than women” (Bennion 73). In addition, men are “at least 20% heavier than their female counterparts” (Bennion 74). This means that human beings are naturally polygamous albeit at a low level. As a result, men have to compete for women in order to satisfy their reproductive needs. In this regard, the following arguments have been used to oppose polygamy.
First, tall or big men have greater mating opportunities than short men. This argument is based on the premise that big men can provide better physical protection to women than short men (Milton 67). The resulting competition for women leads to unbalanced distribution of mating partners. Big men have several wives, whereas short men remain without mating partners. Second, the competition for women leads to criminal activities (Zeitzen 48).
Short men who face difficulties in finding wives have to use all connections and alliances to get married. This leads to early booking of women and underage marriages. For example, young men from the Maasai community in Kenya have to book their wives as early as the age of 10 years due to competition for women.
As a result, women are dominated and have no freedom to choose their husbands. Third opponents of polygamy argue that human beings are capable of controlling their natural desires. For instance, history has shown that there are thousands of men all over the world who are able to remain faithful to their wives. Thus, polygamy should not be allowed.
Based on the evolutionary perspective, decriminalization of polygamy is supported by the following arguments. To begin with, the argument that men are capable of controlling their mating desires is unfounded. The history of western countries reveals that monogamy leads to increased cases of fornication, adultery, and divorce among married people (Bennion 81). These problems can be avoided if polygamy is decriminalized to enable consenting men and women to have as many spouses as they wish.
The argument that only tall or big men can find wives is not practical. Indeed, there are thousands of women who are married to short men. For example, several men among the Pygmy communities in Congo have married women from other tribes in the country who are twice their height. In addition, most women in Nigeria marry short men as long as they are wealthy.
Ultimately, the decision on who to marry is determined by love rather than the size of a prospective marriage partner (Bennion 86). This means that polygamy does not create dangerous competition for women. National census in most African and Arab countries shows that the number of women exceeds that of men. Thus, polygamy helps in reducing the number of women who are not able to find husbands.
Although polygamy can result into competition for women in societies such as China where the number of men exceeds that of women, it is not likely to lead to criminal activities. In the 21st century, most countries are ruled by laws that apply to all citizens (Milton 56). Thus, any criminal activity that might arise as men try to find women can always be prevented through the legal system.
Cultural/ Religious Perspective
The most important cultural and religious arguments against polygamy include the following. First, most European countries and the US believe that polygamy is a backward culture that should not be practiced in the modern society (Bennion 36). Most western cultures associate polygamy with oppression of women.
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Specifically, polygyny is considered to be undesirable because it denies women exclusive access to their husbands. Second, polygamy contravenes the principles of the culture of capitalism that dominates the US and European countries. Capitalism is informed by the principles of the Protestant ethic that promote frugality and efficiency both at the individual and business level. Thus, polygamy is undesirable in the western culture because of its financial implications.
Third, Christians believe that polygamy is prohibited by the Bible. This belief is based on the fact that the New Testament urges Christians to be married to one partner (Zeitzen 96). Thus, having more than one spouse at the same time is a sin that is punishable. As a result, Christians all over the world strive to remain faithful to their wives or husbands. Finally, some Muslims believe that majority of their colleagues misinterpreted the Quran’s position on polygamy.
Their argument is based on the fact that the Quran states that whoever marries more than one wife must treat all his wives equally (Zeitzen 97). Specifically, a polygynous man must not favor any of his wives at the expense of the others. Undoubtedly, this condition is not achievable since human beings are inherently biased.
Men will always have preferences rather than being neutral when faced with a choice of more than one woman. In this context, polygamy should not be practiced since men cannot meet the Quran’s requirement for marrying more than one wife.
The argument that polygamy is a backward cultural practice lacks substance. Polygamy has always been part of most African and Asian Cultures that are held in high esteem. For instance, in Nigeria and Kenya having more than one wife is a symbol of social status. Undoubtedly, only wealthy men can afford to maintain several women and their children.
In South Africa, the current president has three wives. Similarly, most Chinese leaders in the 19th century had several wives. Thus, the perspective that polygamy is a backward culture is an ethnocentric perspective that the western world has to overcome as a sign of respect to other cultures.
The Christians who believe that polygamy is a sin forget that the Old Testament had several examples of people who were polygamous. Although biblical leaders such as Abraham and King David were polygynous, they were blessed rather than condemned (Milton 87). In Nigeria and Philippines where Christianity has been adapted to local beliefs and traditions, polygamy is increasingly being accepted by Christians.
The argument that the Quran prohibits polygamy is incorrect. It is based on radical interpretation of the Quran rather than a clear understanding of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. The impartiality requirement was included in the teachings about polygamy to encourage men to avoid abandoning or mistreating some of their wives.
If Prophet Mohammad was against polygamy, he could not have practiced it in the first place. Moreover, he could have provided explicit teachings rather than intuitions to discourage polygamy. Indeed, the impartiality requirement was meant to strengthen polygamy rather than to discourage it. For example, in Saudi Arabia where Islam is the main religion marrying up to four wives in the norm among Imams and laymen.
In the US and the UK, polygamy is discouraged because it is associated with low quality of life. Most western countries are highly urbanized. People have to depend on the income obtained from formal employment instead of farming to sustain their families. Thus, men are increasingly facing financial constraints, which in turn diminish the desirability of polygyny.
In particular, polygynous men are likely to spend their resources in marrying more wives at the expense of their children’s welfare (Henrich, Boyd and Richerson 657-669). As a result, children from polygamous families are expected to have low educational attainment and poor health status.
In African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, polygamy is associated with poverty. Most western non-governmental organizations that provide relief services in Africa argue that poverty can be reduced if the communities abandon polygamy. This argument is based on the premise that monogamy reduces fertility rate, thereby causing a decline in population growth. As a result, households will be spending their income on investments instead of feeding large families (Bennion 102).
This leads to reduction of poverty at the household level. Reduction in population growth will also enable governments in African countries to shift their resources from social safety net projects to development projects. The resulting increase in economic growth will improve the GDP per capita.
The arguments that discourage polygamy based on economic considerations fail to take into account the realities of most African and Asian countries. Countries such as Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are characterized by agrarian and pastoralist communities that depend on subsistence farming. Free and reliable labour is central to the success of subsistence farming.
Thus, local communities have to marry several women who bear a lot of children to work in the farmlands or to take care of livestock (Bennion 103). This shows that polygamy is a source of wealth rather than a cause of poverty.
Criminalizing polygamy does not result into a low population growth rate. For instance, the population of China has not declined despite the fact that the country prohibited polygamy over forty years ago. In most African countries, monogamous families continue to have as many as twelve children.
Thus, poverty should be addressed through increased investments in development projects. This will enable African countries to take advantage of the increased labour supply that is attributed to polygamy to accelerate their economic growth. China and India have become economic powers because polygamy partly contributed to increased supply of cheap labour, which in turn continues to attract foreign direct investments from all over the world.
The argument that polygamy discourages investments is based on a narrow view of the wealth creation process. History shows that most of the billionaires in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are polygamous. Polygamy helps in distributing the wealth of billionaires to several children and women. Since polygamous families face competition for resources, the wives and children of billionaires or rich people have to invest their share of the family wealth wisely in order to secure their future.
Competition for resources at the family level is an effective mechanism for instilling financial discipline in children (Milton 111). This enables children from polygamous families to be better entrepreneurs than their counterparts from monogamous families where the few children inherit all the wealth that they require for their lifetime.
The social considerations that have been used to argue against polygamy include the following. To begin with, polygamy is viewed as a way of demeaning women. Increased empowerment of women in the 21st century has led to the belief that ladies should be independent (Milton 113). Polygyny contravenes the principle of independence by forcing ladies to share men and family resources with other women.
Polygamy is also associated with disharmony at the family level. Co-wives who do not get along are likely to engage in frequent confrontations. This can lead to injuries or loss of lives. In addition, children who are raised in polygamous families where confrontation is commonplace are likely to be aggressive or violent in adulthood.
Sharing the responsibility of raising children is also difficult in polygamous families (Zeitzen 106). Young ladies who are married to very old men are likely to bear the burden of raising their children due to the low productivity of their husbands. In addition, neglect by men can lead to increased suffering among women and children in polygamous families.
Empirical studies show that polygamy has nothing to do with demeaning women (Bennion 120). Most women who are in polygamous marriages are well educated and are able to support themselves financially (Bennion 121). Polygynous men in the 21st century have learnt to respect their wives and to provide them with opportunities to advance their careers and businesses.
The argument that polygamous families are characterized by violent confrontations is an exaggeration. Undoubtedly, polygamy enables men to hone their leadership skills and to learn to be patient. The challenge associated with managing more than one woman cannot be overstated. It motivates men to learn the art of tolerating divergent opinions and managing conflict, which in turn enables them to ensure harmony in polygamous marriages.
Polygamy also helps in addressing social issues such as prostitution and the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV and AIDs (Milton 108). Women who are not able to find suitable husbands are likely to turn to prostitution if polygamy is prohibited. This will lead to deterioration of moral standards in the society. Moreover, it will increase the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. As a result, mortality rates will increase.
Perceived harm is the main argument that lawyers and courts use to argue against polygamy. The constitutions of countries such as Canada consider polygamy as an act that “creates a reasonable apprehension of harm” (Milton 115).
To elaborate, the negative economic, social, and cultural effects of polygamy that have been discussed in the foregoing paragraphs are considered as risk factors that warrant criminalization of polygamy. For instance, women and children can be exposed to social and economic deprivation in their families if polygamy is legalized.
Clearly, there is no justifiable legal reason to criminalize polygamy. In the US, the freedom of association and engaging in sexual and non-sexual relationships is enshrined in the constitution. Thousands of people are already living together and having sexual relationships with people who are not their wives. Thus, it is unreasonable to deny them a chance to formalize their relationships through marriage (Turley). Polygamous people in the US have to live in fear of being prosecuted for exercising their freedom of association (Turley).
The constitutions of most countries that believe in democracy state that all citizens are equal before the law. This has led to legalization of same-sex marriages across the global. Similarly, polygamous families must be allowed to live their lives as they wish (Turley). The infringement of individual rights by imposing monogamy on the society has to be addressed by decriminalizing polygamy.
Using perceived harm as a reason to criminalize polygamy is irrational. The social and economic deprivations associated with polygamy are also rampant in monogamous families. Thus, the solution is to enact laws that protect women and children from any harm in their families.
The discussion in this paper has highlighted the controversies that surround polygamy. Those who oppose polygamy believe that it can lead to unhealthy competition for spouses, especially, in countries where men are more than women. In addition, polygamy is considered as a source of poverty since it leads to competition for resources at the family level. However, proponents of polygamy believe that it is a source of wealth, especially, in agrarian and pastoralist societies that require a huge supply of cheap labour.
Moreover, polygamy is desirable because it addresses social problems such as prostitution, adultery, and spread of deadly diseases. Polygamy enables men to improve their leadership skills and motivates their family members to be efficient in the management of their resources.
The negative effects of polygamy can be addressed through legislation and reinforcement of social norms that promote responsibility among men. Criminalizing polygamy is an unnecessary infringement of the rights of law-abiding citizens. Thus, polygamy should be decriminalized to enhance social and economic prosperity.
Bennion, J. Polygamy in Primetime, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.
Henrich, J., Robert B. and Peter R. “The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage.” Philosophical Transactions 367.1 (2013): 657-669. Print.
Milton, D. Polygamy and Monogamy. London: Palgrave, 2009. Print.
Turley, J. One Big Happy Polygamous Family. New York Times 20 July 2011: 2. NYT Database. Web.
Zeitzen, M. Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. New York : John Wiley and Sons, 2008. Print.