Written by Gracie Lawrence
Since the days that exotic tales of everyday wealthy Ottoman life began to waft onto European shores, wondering Western romantic minds have been painting up portraits of what Eastern harrams (pronounced hair-ums in some southern cities) must have looked like. Ladies lavishly washing, beautifying themselves and their long manes, and perhaps even making exquisitely succulent turkey dinners … together … just for you.
Equally ridiculous is how having 4 sets of in-laws, the various responsibilities of those women and resulting amount of children, and how alllll that would affect Sunday night football never quite occurs to many men.
I thought it would be interesting to talk about why anyone might want to be in a polygamous marriage in the first place (PART 1) and no, not from a male point of view … boring! Secondly, what responsibilities that would entail for a man (PART 2).
Wait, whaatt? Muslim men have duties to their wife/wives? YUP!
Polygamy (or more specifically, Polygyny- in which a man has more than one wife) can be a difficult thing for the Western mind to imagine as anything other than an oppressive venture.
However, the disturbing–to-some fact remains that a large part of the world does practice polygamy and has practiced it for thousands of years (conjuring up stories of King Solomon here).
According to the Ethnographic Atlas, of 1,231 societies noted, only 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry (in which a woman has more than one husband- Part 3, maybe?).
However, even in countries where polygyny is practiced only 16-30% of people actually utilize it. Therefore, clearly even in polygyny friendly societies, this form of marriage is not dominant.
Moreover, there are various kinds, female choice polygyny systems seen among South American natives (see this one about a Bolivian tribe) are going to be different than a male coercion model.
There are many reasons why marriages may become polygamous. But I think it first appropriate to bring forth the appropriate backdrop.
Lifting the Western goggles
Picture it … the Earth, the date- today.
Even in this century, the majority of the world does not have the economic system or wealth of modern post- industrialized nations.
Taking into consideration that most of human civilization has been overrun with serious poverty, men and women dying from preventable diseases, and women dying due to childbirth related complications, (Maternal Deaths Sub-Saharan Africa) life and social taboos in many places were and still are vastly different from the Western context.
Now that we have taken our Western goggles off
Let’s have a look around and think of just some examples where polygyny might occur and work … without being oppressive to women.
You’re a poor girl whose father and only bread winner of the family just passed away. Unfortunately for you women don’t have the option of earning wages. And you really don’t like being poor. While there are plenty of single, young goat-herding men around- they are also poor and therefore not very interesting to you.
There is, however, an older, charming a la’ Sean Connery merchant who is actually very well off. He already has two wives, but have you seen their homes? And you would be the youngest and favorite wife, right?
You’re a poor girl who lives in a village that has just been annihilated by a fairly rich country. Most of the men have been slaughtered, including your father the protector and only bread winner of the family.
You are stuck with the few males who were too old to be considered a threat to invaders. They all have at least one wife already. But you really want some babies, a few meals a day, and some protection in your now lawless area. Polygyny is a better than your only other option- prostitution (which sky-rockets in conflict zones).
3. You’re tired
You are a married woman with a few kids, and you have been married to your husband for a while now. He’s a nice guy- you love him- you would never think of leaving him or separating him from the kids. But the man has the sexual appetite that can be compared to a pack of starved wildebeests … every … single … night.
You on the other hand are a once a week kind of girl. You tell him he either needs a new hobby or a new wife- not that he can’t just overcome his urge, but you’re pretty practical at this point in your life–why not?
I could go on and on with these circumstances and the driving factors for women to want polygyny (your parents don’t even have to die in these scenarios and the last one isn’t even poverty dependent).
Even Tim Harford at Slate recognizes the benefits of such a system in his article hilariously entitled I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do: The Economic Case for Polygamy
This probably all sounds very foreign to you, and of course it is! (Except for the marrying for money part because we all know of some gold digger who did that.) It is not part of our culture to have a lot of these problems, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been an issue or are still occurring in many parts of the world RIGHT NOW.
What Islam does is regulate these unions so that as few people get hurt as possible (no abusing women, using men purely as sperm donors, the rights of children, etc.).
And in a species such as ours where almost every characteristic (including sexual appetite) can be spread over such a vast spectrum of varying degrees of intensity- I believe such flexibility in law (religious or otherwise) actually strengthens societies.
Part Two here
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