A family ought to consist of mother, father and at least two children. The parents live their life to provide for the children, work hard, build a house and have a dog that carries the newspaper into the house every morning!
Call me crazy, I call that ideal you can still find in most Hollywood movies, series and books, outdated. Don’t get me wrong I respect those, who chose this way for themselves. I grew up in the “perfect family” structure and would not miss it for the world. Nevertheless I don’t think it is the one and only right way and we should start thinking outside the box. And it’s not only me: In feminist and queer literature you can find other voices calling for surpassing the limits imposed by the “perfect family”. Mainly because the idealization of this lifestyle leads to a discrimination of LGBT relationships – just remember all those voices calling same-sex-marriage (in German I prefer: “geschlechtsunabhängige Ehe” which is unfortunately hard to translate) or adoption a threat to heterosexually structured families. However, In many views (3 out of 4 in Germany stated support for same-sex marriages), it is just a legitime claim of a right to do what everybody else does – to live up to the above-mentioned ideal.
Because of that, from another, perhaps more radical perspective, you can state that same-sex marriage and adoption rights exceed the limit of the “perfect family” only in a quite narrow way. By that I mean, that they only demand a change in the family’s sexual and gender composition but do not necessarily question the lifestyle and ideas and norms (work, child, house, dog) attached to it.
Not long ago, in april 2013, US feminist Jillian Keenan was causing a media outcry because she quoted Republican politicians warning about same-sex marriage being the first step into legalization of polygamy – and considered the latter to be positive.
Change of scene: in Kyrgyzstan I came across the issue of polygamy already several times. Mostly people were talking about someone. But I also met a person who apparently is married to two wives. A friend told me she was approached by a friendly older man, offering to take her as his additional wife so she wouldn’t have to worry about her income and financial situation. Although not quite obvious and people don’t seem to be too eager to talk about that topic (with foreigners), polygamy (or better polygyny – the fact of one man having several wives, while polygamy is possible in both ways) apparently exists and is accepted and also practiced by at least part of the society.
What does the law say?
Polygyny is prohibited by law in all Central Asian states. Although there were some attempts to legalize it after the break-down of Soviet Union (2007 in Kyrgyzstan). Since the region had been under the control of the Soviet empire, polygamy was officially banned and is still criminalized today with maximum punishments of 2 years. Until today Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that decriminalized the custom in 1998, thus making it not officially legal but eradicating possible fears of negative consequences.
What does Islam say?
Since the dominating religion in Central Asia is Islam, my first guess was, that the habit of polygyny must come from Islamic tradition and was only prohibited during Soviet times, still held up by law, but apparently not eradicated. I thought that the acceptance for polygyny might be explained in Qur’an. To make that clear, although I always wanted to, I have not read the Qur’an yet and therefore am just citing what I found out by doing some research. In context of polygamy Sura 4,3 is the most cited one. It allows any man to have several (up to four) wives, if he is able to do them all justice. I won’t try to explain the background of this sura, Islam researchers argue about, but will just leave it at that.
So, yes Islam allows polygamy. Yet, I found some opposing stats to my hypothesis of Islam being the main factor to society’s acceptance of this custom. These stats show the opinion on polygamy to be most accepted and positively connotated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – the two countries in Central Asia that are widely considered to be least Muslim (hereby I mean that Muslim traditions and practices have a less important role for citizen’s daily life) and still most attached to the Soviet system.
According to this survey (which seemed quite reliable to me although they have a weird definition of Central Asia – see above) conducted by the Pew Research Centre, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, followed by Turkey are also the countries most in favour of other “liberal” beliefs (like for example drinking, accepting atheism, and to a very small scale abortion) than other Muslim Arabic and African and also Central Asian countries.
Regarding these facts, another explanation highlighting other factors than Islamic traditions, sounds more convincing to me (abstract here). The two researchers find the reason for the reestablishment of polygyny in Central Asia in the economic instability that followed the breakdown of Soviet Union in the 90’s.
With the Soviet Union also the established social security systems were breaking apart in the transition from planned to market economy, which made particularly women highly vulnerable. As a consequence, other security systems had to be established with the family as remaining traditional and stable entity central to them. Also, due to economic instability, a large number of men went to work in Russia or elsewhere abroad, leading to a demographic shift towards women which still exists. These two factors taken together made polygyny appear a logical consequence since few men have to protect a large number or women from economic vulnerability. Religion then is only an additional factor since it justifies the custom through Qur’an and makes it appear a “good deed”.
In fact, for understandable reason, many feminists are actively fighting polygyny as it is obviously a patriarchal custom with the man as the centre of the family. He has to protect the woman by marrying her. Usually she does neither have a choice regarding her own marriage, since it’s her savety net, nor does she have a veto right when he decides to marry again. Leaving him is also no option, because that would weaken her (and her children’s) financial and social position in society. In short: she is dependent on him.
Added to this is the fact, that polygyny is a matter of wealth:
An old joke says that if an Uzbek man gets rich, he builds a new house, but when a Kazakh man comes into money, he gets another wife.
So the wife is degraded to be a status symbol. Since the husband provides not only one but two houses, cars, beds etc. he rather gains status than being excluded by society.
If polygamy is done in that way, in my view, it has no benefits for women (except social security of course – but there should be other ways to that). On the other hand, the reasons for the degradation of women should not be reduced to polygamy. Rather than blaming the custom, I think it is an entirely social problem of considering men as superiour and women as inferiour, thus inscribing different rights and roles to the sexes. This problem can exist (and exists) in all forms of living together – also the perfect monogamous Western family ideal, that in many contexts is still based on inequality and dependency of women on men.
Therefore, Jillian Keenan puts it this way, when she justifies polygamy as a liberating, rather than repressing custom:
Here’s the thing: As women, we really can make our own choices. We just might choose things people don’t like. If a woman wants to marry a man, that’s great. If she wants to marry another woman, that’s great too. If she wants to marry a hipster, well—I suppose that’s the price of freedom.
And if she wants to marry a man with three other wives, that’s her damn choice.
And this exactly is the point – and it’s the same point as above when I was talking about same-sex marriage laws. In my opinion it is all about the possibility (for everyone, whatever gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation or sexuality they might have) to make choices, how their life should be like, without fearing exclusion, contempt or punishment by a repressively organized society. It’s about the freedom to choose whatever you want – whether it is a harem, a third wife, a divorce, single life, or even the “perfect family”.
To close this post: today, my friend was asked by a Turkish friend of hers to become his second wife. When we were discussing the issue on fb while I was writing this post and I suggested her to have several men in different countries to solve that issue, she stated: “I am thinking about, why men can have 2 or more wives and women just can’t. Maybe I’m going to be the first to have several men. Interesting, let’s think about that!”
Yeah, let’s think outside the box. Let’s go “polyandric” 😉.