"The Practice of and Reasons for Polygamy"
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.
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.
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.
||Increase the probability of children, particularly when a wife is barren
or gives birth to female children only.
||Increase the labour supply within a kinship network.
||Deal with the “problem" of surplus women.
||Expand the range of a man's alliances so he is able to maintain or
acquire a position of leadership.
||Perhaps provide sexual satisfaction to men, particularly in societies
with lengthy post-partum sexual taboos (Macfarlane 1986: 217-221; Mair 1971:
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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.
The bibliography associated with this report is at:
Dr. Martha Bailey, et al., "Expanding Recognition of Foreign Polygamous Marriages: Policy Implications for
Canada" Issued 2006-JAN-12, Status of Women Canada, at:
- 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.
- Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, s. 11; Singh (1997: 237-277).
- See, for example, Mahiueddin (1997: 16-17).
- 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
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 http://www.law.emory.edu/IFL/.
- Alexander (1987); Alexander et al. (1979: 402) as discussed and cited in
Sanderson (2001) and in Kanazawa and Still (1999).
- Betzig (1986) as discussed and cited in Sanderson (2001) and Kanazawa and
- MacDonald (1990: 195) as discussed and cited in Sanderson (2001) and
Kanazawa and Still (1999).
- Sanderson (2001) citation omitted.
- 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).
- See Alexander (1987) and Alexander et al. (1979).
- As discussed in Sanderson (2001: 333).
- 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."
- 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."
- See, for example, Jennaway (2002: 140-142).
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."
- 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
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.