In November of 2014, Canada’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced the ‘Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.’ The bill – the title of which appears to be a jab at Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s condemnation of the ruling Conservatives’ description of the honour killing of women and girls in certain cultural communities as ‘barbaric’ in Canada’s citizenship guide – seeks to bar immigrants involved in polygamous and forced marriages from Canada. Temporary and permanent residents already in Canada found to engage in polygamy could be removed from the country. On announcing the legislation, Alexander said, ‘Canada will not tolerate any type of violence against women or girls in Canada.’
Like many observers, Chris Alexander evidently views polygamy as a wrong against women. This view is shared by Russian-American journalist Cathy Young. In an article explaining why Western women are better-off than those in less affluent countries (her definition of ‘West’ is a bit ambiguous; for example, she does not consider Latin America to be Western despite its language, religion and legal systems stemming from Europe), she takes aim at ‘Afrocentrists’ for ignoring anti-feminist practices like polygamy and female genital mutilation in Africa. The Muslim-majority country of Tunisia in North Africa has been hailed as ‘progressive’ for having outlawed plural marriages in the 1950s. Polygamy is seen as a mark of male supremacy and gender inequality. But does polygamy really benefit men at the expense of women or harm women to the advantage of men? Perhaps more importantly, if polygamy is found to be detrimental to women, should it be made (or, in nations that have never permitted it, kept) illegal?
It should first be noted that even in places where polygamy1 is legal, only a minority of men actually have more than one wife at a time. The cost of supporting more than one spouse in addition to any resulting offspring is generally beyond the reach of most men. It is also doubtful whether, even if polygamy were legalized in, say, the United States, many people would practise it other than some Mormons or immigrants from countries where it is allowed by law.
Some research does show that women in polygamous marriages suffer psychologically compared to their monogamously married peers. According to one study from Syria, for example, women who shared a husband with another woman were more likely to experience ‘depression, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation and psychoticism,’ among other things. Nonetheless, one could argue that while marriage at the age of 19 is hardly a great idea – spouses in their teens have a dramatically higher divorce rate than those who marry in their 20s and beyond – for either men or women, it still is legal and will in all probability remain so.
Now to the crux of the matter: does polygamy really benefit men, as a whole, to the detriment of women? There are not, as far as I am aware, studies on the psychological well-being of men in plural marriages compared to their counterparts with one spouse. Even if, however, males in polygamous unions were found to be better-off, this would be primarily to the disadvantage not of women but of the men left without any wife at all. One exception would be in a time and/or place with a highly uneven sex ratio, with far more females than males. Interestingly, the few times polygamy was legalized – in both cases temporarily – in the West occurred once in Germany and another time in Paraguay following wars in which large numbers of men died in battle. One pro-polygamy Christian website claims that plural marriages would guarantee every woman a husband in the face of many men shunning marriage altogether. The ‘marriage-phobic male,’ though, seems to be a bit of a cliché: most actual surveys show men as likely as women to want to get married. Therefore, polygamy is unlikely to benefit men as a group beyond a select few.
The final question: should polygamy, or the admittance of polygamous immigrants, be allowed? I can’t say I have any absolutist opinions on the matter. Although I recognize the potential harms of polygamy to both women and men, I doubt permitting plural marriage would result in a rush of men clamouring to wed more than one wife. On the other hand, as the above-mentioned Cathy Young says in another essay, legalizing polygamy would change the nature of matrimony much more than, for instance, same-sex marriage. I’m inclined to answer ‘no’ to my final question. Yet I really can’t argue that on the grounds that polygamy would present a danger exclusively to women.
1. For the purpose of this essay, ‘polygamy’ will refer to ‘polygyny,’ the marriage of one man to more than one woman, not ‘polyandry,’ the (much rarer practice of) marriage of one woman to more than one man.