I recently did an Internet search to find out why polygamy is banned in some places in the world and is not, and even encouraged, in others. Why? Because a few years ago I did a similar search and came up with essentially nothing.
Those sites that talked about the illegality of polygamy basically listed where such bans were in effect but gave no reasons why, which of course was object of the exercise. The first time I did the search I was still an Internet novice, so I thought perhaps I hadn't done it right. However this second search, undertaken several years later, turned up essentially the same result.
Why my interest in the subject? There are two reasons.
1. I am naturally curious about the origins of conventional wisdom. I grew up in the U.S., where it was well known that in all 50 states polygamy (and presumably polyandry) were illegal. This just seemed to be the natural order of things.
2. I later lived in Tanzania (East Africa), where polygamy was not only legal, but in some quarters actively encouraged.
I now reside in Belgium (yes, it is illegal here). I raised the question with a Belgian friend, who replied that countries where polygamy is illegal "just have different values from those where it isn't." This, of course, was not an answer, but simply a statement of the obvious.
When anti-polygamy laws were passed in Belgium and elsewhere, presumably there were debates before the vote. But information about these debates is precisely what was absent from every website I visited.
Where there was any discussion at all, it generally revolved around the knee-jerk reaction that polygamy is demeaning to women - and even a kind of slavery. However, this argument is too facile. In many places where polygamy has long been outlawed, until fairly recently a woman was considered to be her husband's chattel, i.e. he legally owned her. She had no rights except those devolved by her husband. And of course divorce was unthinkable.
When living in Tanzania, I attended a public debate on whether polygamy in that country should be outlawed. Surprisingly (at least to me as a foreigner), it was the male speakers who said "yes" and the female speakers who said "no". Without going into the specific arguments, the women speakers believed that, properly regulated, polygamy was a positive societal value that enhanced their status rather than diminishing it. The consensus was: Polygamy should be a matter of choice, not law.
My guess is that in most places where polygamy has been outlawed, notably in the United States, the decision was based largely on religion. If this is true, it would indeed be disappointing. The U.S. is a country where separation of church and state is enshrined in the national creed, so laws based largely or solely on religion would be very much out of character.
Perhaps acceptance or rejection of polygamy has something to do with a country's status of being "developed" or "developing."
In recent years, rights for homosexuals have been gaining ground in virtually all developed countries, while in most developing countries homosexuality is still severely repressed, including long jail terms and even execution. These laws are unquestionable based on religion. It seems that the stronger the hold of religion - Christian or otherwise - on a country, the stronger the repression.
Does the same thing hold true for polygamy? If yes, then any country that claims to be a democracy rather than a theocracy should rethink its position.
What is clear is, the fact that many people - even the vast majority - may find the idea of polygamy to be repugnant is no basis for banning it. Not too long ago many people considered the idea black people mixing with white people to be repugnant, and it was banned. Fortunately, those pernicious apartheid laws have been consigned overturned.
There may be legitimate sociological arguments why polygamy (and polyandry) should be banned in some countries and not in others. However, until such arguments are brought forward and properly debated, my impulse is to side with the consensus in Tanzania. Polygamy should be a matter of choice, not law.
in News And Society