Polygamy is outlawed in Britain but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen here…
Polygamy is usually seen as an exotic Eastern practice, far-away from the damp shores of Britain. Or something associated with Mormon fundamentalists, as shown in the new Channel Five series, Big Love.
But closer to home, polygamy is practiced among black and Asian communities in this country. While under British law, marrying more than one person is a criminal offence, many people have found ways around this legal stipulation.
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Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, told The Voice that polygamy is practiced in the UK among some Muslim communities.
He said that although the vast majority of Muslim men are married to one woman, a minority has taken advantage of the Islamic Law (sharia) that states that men can have a maximum of up to four wives.
“Although you cannot legally have more than one partner, within the Muslim community I do know that there are people who have more than one wife,” he said.
Under sharia, all wives have equal rights, but in the eyes of British law, only the wife whose marriage is registered in the UK has any power. This means that other wives who would have rights in Muslim countries, have none in the UK.
Dr Siddiqui says that the majority of polygamous Muslim marriages are among older people born outside the UK. He added that having multiple wives is generally frowned upon, even within Muslim communities.
“Among most Muslims, polygamy is not really considered acceptable. These practices exist mainly among the older generation – it’s very rare to hear of anyone from the younger generation who would have more than one wife.”
He added, however, that when young men are forced into marrying someone according to their parent’s wishes, they do sometimes then have a second marriage of their own choice.
He said: “I have heard of some cases where a young person has been forced to marry a person he did not like and they have then said: ‘ok, I’ll marry one person of my parent’s choice and one of my own choice’.
“The first wife who is chosen by the parents is often of their tribal background, because they feel pressure to marry within the community. So a young man may say, ‘okay, fine I accept’, but then he says: ‘I will have one of my own choice’, who is more likely to be someone from this country.
“In these cases, the one [wife] who comes through parental choice suffers ultimately, for obvious reasons.”
Outside the UK, polygamy takes place today in parts of the Middle-east, Africa and North America.
It is a broad term – sociologists distinguish between three different types – polygamy, polyandry and group marriage. Polygamy – where one man has many wives – is by far the most common.
Polyandry – where one woman has many husbands and group marriage, where both men and women may have more than one partner, are relatively rare.
Interestingly, sociologists do not limit the definition of polygamy to formalised marriage – a Western man with a long-term mistress, or a Chinese man with one or more concubines, would similarly be described as polygamous.
While popular imagination has focussed on the sexual implications of polygamy, the reality is often linked to economics.
Professor Emmanuel K. Twesigye, professor of black world studies at Ohio Wesleyan University in the US is an expert on the subject. He says that in labour-intensive agricultural societies, polygamy provides more hands to work the fields to produce more food.
He said: “Polygamy produced wealth, for the man as well as the whole group which the patriarch supported.”
He added: “Also, women and children were safer in larger households where they were better protected from aggressors. Pride was associated with a larger family and shame and low self-esteem were associated with small families which were symbolic of poverty.”
On top of this, in most of traditional Africa, there was a custom of widow inheritance when a brother’s wives were passed on to the father, or another brother on his death. The idea was that no widows or orphans would be left without provision and family.
A man with many wives was considered wealthy, so the more wives a man had, the better. These old customs are still apparent today – the widely publicised ‘reed dance’ where topless virgins danced for the opportunity to be selected as King Mswati of Swaziland’s next wife, is a modern-day continuation of those same traditions. The previous king of Swaziland, Sobhuza, had more than 70 wives and 400 children. The current monarch, 37-year-old Mswati, is following in his father’s footsteps having accrued 15 wives since coming to power in 1986.
Polygamy meant many other things too. It was a means of brokering political alliances between powerful families. In a culture where men naturally died younger and were far more likely to die during hunting, wars and fighting, polygamy provided a ‘safety net’ to make sure that no woman was left unwed.
Of course, many men preferred polygamy for straightforward sexual gratification, but according to sociologists, this was often not the main consideration.
Polygamy has historically existed in many other cultures too.
For example, the state of Israel had to make special provisions for polygamous Jewish families migrating to it when it was formed in 1948.
And while the practice of polygamy within Muslim cultures is well known – it varies considerably. While it is relatively common in some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE, in most others it is often rare or non-existent.
In Muslim countries where polygamy does occur, there are certain core fundamentals across the board. According to Sharia, a man may take up to four wives, and each of those wives must have her own property, assets and dowry.
Usually the wives have little or no contact with each other and lead separate, individual lives in their own houses, sometimes in different cities – a far cry from the Western Orientalist fantasy of harems full of scantily-clad women.
And as in Africa, it tends to be richer men who can afford to have multiple wives.
In China and Hong Kong, it is again wealthier, married men who are able to provide separate apartments and finances for their concubines.
A study by the University of Berlin carried out in 1996 found that out of an estimated two million married couples in Hong Kong, about 300,000 husbands had mistresses in mainland China.
Despite the popular image of Mormon polygamy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explicitly rejects polygamy.
Although the church did initially condone polygamy, anti-polygamy laws enacted in the US in the 1860s were accepted by mainstream Mormons. But splinter sects of the church, who mainstream Mormons describe as ‘Mormon fundamentalists’, have continued the practice.