This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
For many so-called westerners, polygamy is a dirty word. It’s a practice that’s frowned upon in public but in private it’s equally admired, especially by proponents of so-called ‘open’ marriages. It’s a bit like the “anti-gambling” lobby in the good old US of A. They’ll cuss and curse folk who dare to play at a casino online but will be the first to feed coins into the slot machines in Vegas for a shot at the big time!
Although polygamy is not as widespread as it once was, it’s still the foundation of traditional marriages in the Middle East, Africa, Goa in India and parts of Eastern Europe. Closer to home, the fundamentalist Mormons in Utah practice polygamy with seemingly no shame at all. Mormon men are entitled to marry a whole host of ‘sister wives’ to cook, cuddle and keep them company well into their old age.
The former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma is a serial practitioner of polygamy. At 75-years of age he’s collected a coterie of seven wives, the youngest of which is more than 50 years his junior. King Mswati III of Swaziland – or eSwatini as it’s now called – is another famous, or should we say infamous, man-eater of dozens of brides. At last count the last absolute monarch on earth had assembled a household of 15 wives who’ve blessed him with 23 children… princes and princesses all!
In the Islamic world polygamy is an ancient custom that’s recognized in the Quran. Like the African model it’s only permitted by men. However, unlike the African model where there is no limitation as to the number of beaming brides a man can marry, Muslim men are only allowed to indulge in a neatly balanced four-pack of simultaneous wives … no questions asked.
Polygamy is Western Adultery but with Strings Attached
At first glance polygamy may seem like a patriarchal ploy designed to allow men to dabble here, there and everywhere. Once they’re bored of wives one and two they can simply go window shopping for wives three and four… ad infinitum. But when you sit quietly and assess the timeless tradition, it’s really just Western adultery with strings.
In liberal places like France men openly consort with their mistresses and concubines while their wives look the other way. Some even set their lovers up in expensive boudoirs and pay for their trinkets and toys. They seldom, if ever, bestow the kind of protection that marriage provides even once their wives are dead. In the UK, Canada, Australia and the States men are probably a little more discrete about their dalliances but infidelity happens with boring regularity nonetheless.
In fact, in Edwardian England it was the accepted norm that the lords and ladies of aristocracy and members of the upper crust played way outside the marital bed… a practice that has been enthusiastically embraced right through history as dear Alice Keppel and Camilla Parker Bowles can attest. Both women were the favored mistresses of the Princes of Wales; Edward VII and Charles, the current Prince of Wales who later broke protocol by marrying his beloved paramour!
What Motivates Polygamy?
Is polygamy really as bad as it’s made out to be? Let’s take a look at the facts. In African culture men traditionally embrace the custom for multiple reasons. For one thing the number of wives, children and cattle a man has is an indication of his wealth. Many wives also mean he can make a slew of strategic alliances with his wives’ families and clans. It’s kind of like networking on steroids… but with loads of sexual gratification thrown in!
Keeping the homestead clean and tidy, the veggie plot thriving and the livestock well-watered and fed is obviously a lot easier when your family extends to around two score and ten. Factor in safety in numbers and having a small legion of wives and children hanging around the house is probably far more effective than an armed response team, CCTV cameras or a burglar alarm! That’s all good and well as far as the men are concerned but how do the women feel about sharing their hearth and home with a whole lot of others, some of whom are obviously younger, perkier and prettier?
Are Women Really Willing Participants?
In traditional polygamous marriages women may be ‘willing’ participants… up to a point. When wife number two and three join the home, there is often a sense of betrayal and loss. The man who was once all theirs has to be sliced, diced and shared. It’s not only the exclusivity of love that they lose when one or more women enter their realm; there’s a loss of trust, dignity, sense of self and financial support too. The coffers now have to extend to the new recruits and their offspring.
From a purely feminist perspective polygamy is the poster boy for the exploitation of women. It’s oppressive, cruel, unfair and leads to an imbalance of power that’s seriously skewed towards men. It’s a system that perpetuates patriarchy and gender equality to the detriment of women’s rights.
On the flip side, proponents of polygamy believe it’s the key to preventing young girls and widows – who are often isolated and economically deprived after their husbands die – from sinking into poverty. Would you marry more than one woman at once?