On the public discourse of polygamy and polyandry

Several weeks ago, I went to a lecture/discussion panel called “Muslim Feminist” at SOAS in London. This event was organised by the Malaysian Progressives United Kingdom. The topic of discussion was the compatibility of Islam and feminism – or at least the perception of its compatibility. The speakers both spoke about how Western feminists often demanded that Islam reforms or a reinterpretation of Islam is required so that it “conforms to contemporary, liberal, secular feminism that is currently the mainstream feminist ideology”. What was the most interesting, at least to me, observation they made was that despite many Muslim countries now exist in a post-colonial state, people attempt to force Western feminism onto the Muslim world as a new form of colonialism, instead of liberalising the Muslim culture. They said that fundamental Islam principles read directly from the Qu’ran were in fact largely compatible with feminism in the way that there are no gender biases imposed; which is what is required to bring the Muslim world into a stage past their “post colonial” era and flourish again. What this means is that it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman or any other gender does not act as a factor in what ever job you do, or the kind of legislation that affects you, or whatever punishment is placed upon you for your wrongdoing in society. They said that the theme that is proposed throughout Islamic teachings was not ‘equality’, but rather ‘justice’ and that the “sincere revival of Islam (required in this post colonial era) is not through gender bias reform but through traditional Islam ethics and way of life”.

What the speakers touched on quite a lot was the prevalence of polygamy in Islamic culture and the legislation that is working its way to validating polygamy and protecting and addressing first, second, third, and so on wives. One of the speakers spoke about how she has worked with the first wives of men who have had multiple marriages, some of whom were aware of other wives, and some of whom who were ignorant of such wives. She spoke about the “long-lasting emotional pain on the children that continues far into adulthood” when finding out about other wives of their fathers and the treatment of their family after the fathers have left for their second wives. Another speaker, however, said that a survey conducted in America said that people would actually prefer polygamy over infidelity. I have yet to find the source of this study, however, the NYT has said that more people find infidelity more morally wrong than polygamy. The question I want to pose today is comes in two parts. Polygamy is defined as the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time; however, why is it that we often associate polygamy only with a man having multiple wives at the same time?

The second part is a little more longwinded. Polygamy exists and is spoken about and is part of our global discussions, whether to condemn it, to accept it, to change it, to embrace it. But the thing is, when we speak about polygamy, we often mean polygyny: when a man has multiple wives. But what of polyandry? Embarrassingly, I hadn’t even known there was a term for it. Polygamy is so well known, but the term for a woman who has many husbands hasn’t even crossed my vocabulary once. At least until that day. I wasn’t given the chance to ask the speakers what of polyandry, so I thought it’d be interesting to pose this question to the public for your own discussions. Why is it that in our society, polygamy is often practiced and a controversial topic of discourse, but polyandry doesn’t seem to be practiced nearly as much and definitely not spoken about in the same public discourse?

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