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"The Practice of and Reasons for Polygamy"

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The following is an excerpt from the report: "Expanding Recognition of Foreign Polygamous Marriages: Policy Implications for Canada" prepared by Dr. Martha Bailey, Principal Researcher, Professor Beverley Baines, Co-principal researcher and Professor Bita Amani, Co-principal researcher of Queen's University at Kingston, ON, Canada. 1

Canadian spelling is used in this report.

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OCRT Coordinator's note:

This report studies polygyny (one man married to multiple wives) as practiced in Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries. Some of the observations may be similar to that found within Fundamentalist Mormon U.S. and Canadian subcultures which practice an authoritarian male-dominated family structure.

However, these observations are unlikely to be replicated in egalitarian polygamous marriages in Western countries.

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The Practice of and Reasons for Polygamy:

Polygamy was permitted in most parts of the world at one time, but there has been a move away from the practice. Monogamy is now the rule in eastern and western Europe, North America, South America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand and large parts of Asia, including Japan and China.2 Although India continues to permit Muslims to enter into polygamous marriages, 80 percent of its population is governed by the Hindu Marriage Act, which permits only monogamous marriage.3 In many of the Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries that still permit polygamy, the rules governing the practice have been made more stringent,4 and actually polygamous marriages are the exception rather than the rule.5 In Islamic countries, only the wealthier men are able to comply with the Koran's requirement that a man who takes on more than one wife be able to afford each of them and their children equal protection and benefit.6

Anthropologists suggest that the reasons for, or functions of, polygamy include the following.

bullet Increase the probability of children, particularly when a wife is barren or gives birth to female children only.
bullet Increase the labour supply within a kinship network.
bullet Deal with the “problem" of surplus women.
bullet Expand the range of a man's alliances so he is able to maintain or acquire a position of leadership.
bullet Perhaps provide sexual satisfaction to men, particularly in societies with lengthy post-partum sexual taboos (Macfarlane 1986: 217-221; Mair 1971: 152-153).

Polygamy is also commonly found in closed cultures where open displays of courtship and affection are shunned. As well, polygamy has historically been used in place of divorce in countries with limited grounds for divorce and high thresholds for proving those grounds (Marasinghe 1995: 72-73).

Social scientists have given various theoretical explanations for the practice of polygamy. Alexander,7 Betzig 8 and MacDonald 9 offered variants of a “male compromise" theory, which explains polygamy as resulting from socio-economic stratifications among men. They argued that monogamy is the result of a compromise among men usually following democratic development, whereby the wealthy, powerful men surrender polygamous practices and multiple wives in exchange for political support from poor men. The male compromise theory is based on Richard Alexander's theory that nation-states impose monogamy on their male citizens to equalize their reproductive opportunities.

Kanazawa and Still (1999) argued for a “female choice" theory of marriage practices, which posits that women are in the position of demanding a particular marriage form based on the availability and status of men. Where resource inequalities are great among men, women will choose to marry polygamously. Where inequalities are comparatively low, women will chose to marry monogamously. This theory is female-empowering and functional. It recognizes polygamy or monogamy as rational choices to be made in accordance with social determinants, such as resource inequality. However, it has been criticized for failing to account for the political reality that undermines this choice. In addition, the politics of inequity underlying the practice of polygamy (where there are child brides, for example) are often misattributed to the institution of polygamy. Morrison and Jutting (2004: 16) wrote: “Polygamy entails inequality between men and women because usually there is a difference of 20 to 30 years between the second (or third) wife and her husband."

Sanderson argued that polygamy is really about male choice and preference for sexual variety to ensure male reproductive success. The extent of the opportunity to seek sexual variety may vary, however, with social circumstances, such as the degree to which women are available and how costly they are as wives (their economic value). Sanderson observed that “[p]oorly educated women from rural areas and with low socioeconomic status are much more likely to be in a polygamous marriage, and well-educated women from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, who have many more marital options, shun polygamy."10 The author rejected the female choice theory and noted that it is mostly high-status men in polygamous societies who have multiple wives, as they have “the means to acquire them and the personality traits (e.g., competitiveness, aggressiveness) that incline them toward the pursuit of several females. High status males mate more often and leave more offspring, a pattern that is found widely throughout mammalian species."11

Sanderson embraced this socio-biological understanding of polygamy and supported Alexander's male compromise theory,12 which relies on the idea of reproductive opportunity leveling. Sanderson, drawing on empirical data to support Alexander's theory, wrote: “Male competition for wives produces conflict, and societies that recruit large numbers of young men in order to conduct wars with other societies must find a way to minimize this sort of conflict…[which] can be accomplished by legally prohibiting polygamy, thus giving all males equal access to wives" (Sanderson 2001: 332). According to Alexander, this socially imposed monogamy is a by-product of the large nation state. Sanderson drew on empirical data to support Alexander's theory.

[Forty-six percent] of larger states have socially imposed monogamy, compared to 26% of smaller states, 10% of chiefdoms, and 11% of bands and tribes. In the full Ethnographic Atlas (1,267 societies rather than 186), 46% of larger states have monogamy and another 39% have only occasional polygamy (Murdock and White 1969).

Michael Price's hypothesis that monogamy supports co-operation and, as a result, has spread from the West to other regions was tested by using five measures of societal success against 156 contemporary nation-states, of which 84 are monogamous and 72 are polygamous. Among other conclusions, “Price found that 64% of monogamous societies but only 25% of polygamous societies had liberal democracies." 13 But not all monogamy is politically imposed, as evinced by its existence among small-scale band and tribal societies. “Ecologically imposed monogamy" arises when men lack the resources needed to support multiple wives (Sanderson 2001: 333).

Bretschneider (1995) suggested that polygamy is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. He argued that it is not possible to isolate socio-cultural, economic, demographic or environmental conditions as singular causes. Rather, access and control over resources, as well as the mobility of women across borders, are significant influences.

The research is not conclusive on the impact on children of growing up in polygamous families. In 2002, researchers conducted a review of all quantitative and qualitative studies that had been done on the effect of polygamy on children's outcomes (Elbedour et al. 2002). They found that children of actually polygamous marriages were at greater risk of experiencing marital conflict, family violence and family disruptions, marital distress, particularly that related to high levels of unhappiness of women in polygamous unions, absence of the father and financial stress. However, some of the studies reviewed found that children, particularly older children in a family, demonstrated resilience in dealing with these risk factors. The researchers concluded that cultural factors play a role in determining the extent to which the risk factors associated with polygamy negatively affect children. The researchers suggested that a culture in which polygamy is not only tolerated but valued, where the larger family size associated with polygamy is a signifier of social status, and where women are respected for their role in producing children, may help children deal better with the risk factors associated with polygamy.

Polygamy has long been associated with gender inequality by Western commentators, 14 and this remains the case. In particular, the United Nations has consistently taken the position that polygamy contravenes women's equality rights. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which monitors compliance of states parties to the Convention, issued a general recommendation in 1992 that included the following.

Polygamous marriage contravenes a woman's right to equality with men, and can have such serious emotional and financial consequences for her and her dependants that such marriages ought to be discouraged and prohibited. The Committee notes with concern that some States parties, whose constitutions guarantee equal rights, permit polygamous marriage in accordance with personal or customary law. This violates the constitutional rights of women, and breaches the provisions of article 5(a) of the Convention. 15

Social scientists who have closely studied the condition of women in societies that practise polygamy support the conclusions of the United Nations. In one study of and by Sudanese women, the researchers concluded:

Women do not like polygamy but cannot do anything about it. Divorce is the de facto right of men in the Sudan, whatever the behaviour of the husband. Only one of the respondents tried to gain a divorce from her husband and she could not make the legal system work in her favour and so gave up. Men can and do divorce women when they want too, although this was comparatively rare among our interviewees. The fact that men can take another wife or divorce their existing wife is a source of insecurity and anxiety for women and helps to ensure their adherence to conservative social norms in areas like reproduction, circumcision, work, etc. (Mukhopadhyay et al. 2001: 4).

Social scientists studying various societies often reiterate that the practice of polygyny leads to women being oppressed, threatened or disempowered.16

The decline in polygamy has been related to changing social conditions, the increase in democracy, the decline in arranged marriages, the increase in companionate marriage17 and the improvement in the education of and human rights protections for women. Polygamy may offer short-term benefits to women in societies where women have generally low education levels and few economic opportunities and where their status is linked to marriage and childbirth. However, the consensus is that polygyny can flourish only in the context of gender inequality. This is not to say that all women experience polygyny as exploitative or undesirable,18 only that the practice is connected with gender inequality by organizations such as the United Nations and most social scientists.

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End notes:

The bibliography associated with this report is at:

  1. Dr. Martha Bailey, et al., "Expanding Recognition of Foreign Polygamous Marriages: Policy Implications for Canada" Issued 2006-JAN-12, Status of Women Canada, at:
  2. China, for example, banned polygamy in 1950. The current prohibition is embodied in article 2 of the Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China, 1980, as amended on 28 April 2001.
  3. Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, s. 11; Singh (1997: 237-277).
  4. See, for example, Mahiueddin (1997: 16-17).
  5. Nasir (1995: 25). The Iran census of 1976 indicated that the ratio of men with two or more wives to those with only one wife was 11 to 1,000 (Aghajanian 1986: 750).
  6. For a helpful overview of the laws and socio-cultural conditions of countries in which polygamy is legal, see the Emory University Islamic Family Law Web site
  7. Alexander (1987); Alexander et al. (1979: 402) as discussed and cited in Sanderson (2001) and in Kanazawa and Still (1999).
  8. Betzig (1986) as discussed and cited in Sanderson (2001) and Kanazawa and Still (1999).
  9. MacDonald (1990: 195) as discussed and cited in Sanderson (2001) and Kanazawa and Still (1999).
  10. Sanderson (2001) citation omitted.
  11. Sanderson (2001: 332). A recent high-profile example is the marriage of the King of Swaziland to his 11th wife, who is pregnant with the King's 25th child (BBC 2005).
  12. See Alexander (1987) and Alexander et al. (1979).
  13. As discussed in Sanderson (2001: 333).
  14. Lord Kames (1796: 539) wrote that “polygamy sprang up in countries where women are treated as inferior beings: it can never take place where the two sexes are held to be of equal rank." Responding to “advocates for polygamy" who supported polygamy as a means to regain male superiority, 18th-century philosopher David Hume (nd: 108) argued that “this sovereignty of the male is a real usurpation, and destroys the nearness of rank, not to say equality, which nature has established between the sexes."
  15. UNCEDAW (1992: 1). Article 5(a) of the Convention provides: “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women."
  16. See, for example, Jennaway (2002: 140-142).
  17. Little and Price (1967: 422) wrote that “notions of romantic love and the social aspirations of educated young West Africans largely explains that contemporary popularity of monogamous marriage." Islamic scholars as well associate companionate marriage with monogamy. In his classic treatise, “Woman and Her Rights," Ayatullah Muraza Mutahheri (nd) wrote:
    "Monogamy (Practice of being married to only one woman at a time) is the most natural form of matrimony. The spirit of exclusive relationship or individual and private ownership prevails in it, though this ownership is different from that of wealth or property. In this system the husband and wife each regard the feelings, sentiments and the sexual benefits of the other, as exclusively belonging to him or to her."
  18. Syed Mumtaz Ali, President of the Canadian Society of Muslims, was reported to have said that he “knows of some ‘but not too many' Muslims who live in Canada with more than one wife but knows of no situation where the wives are unwilling, or unhappy, participants in the arrangement" (Cobb 2005). Researchers, however, have found that Muslim women living in polygamous marriages in North America are commonly unhappy, and that the addition of a second or third wife is typically very distressing to the “senior wives" and experienced as abusive or traumatic (Hassouneh-Phillips 2001: 735).

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Site navigation:

Home > "Hot" topics > Marriage > Polygamy > here, or

Home>Religious info>Basic religious info>Religious practices>Marriage>Polygamy>here

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Source: Government of Canada,
Source department: Status of Women Canada
First posted: 2006-AUG-21
Latest update: 2010-DEC-20

Note: The above text is not an official version of the Status of Woman Canada report. It has not been made in affiliation with or with the endorsement of Status of Women Canada.

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