Thursday, 26 June 2008

when is three not a crowd?

i was so hoping to avoid this issue; hoping that the fierce debate raging* in australia would somehow bypass nz, so that i wouldn't have to talk about it at all. but i wasn't quite so lucky - radio nz decided to have a discussion about it on the panel and called me in (right at the end of the clip).

basically, an australian sheikh is calling for polygamy (well technically polyandry, ie one husband with two or more wives) to be recognised by the australian government, in the same way that it is recognised in britain. the reason for his call is to protect the rights of women who enter into these marriages. as you can imagine, all hell broke loose.

there is no doubt that there is an issue here. islamic law allows a maximum of four wives at a time. however, this is not a requirement, nor even a recommendation. in fact the only verse of the Qur'an that mentions the subject finishes with the phrase "but one is better for you, if only you knew". from which one would conclude that the norm should be one wife unless there are some exceptional circumstances.

such exceptional circumstances might be a wife who is not able to bear children but who doesn't want to leave the marriage. yes, adoption is an answer, if her husband agrees to that. but if he doesn't, she may prefer a second wife to a divorce. however, polygamy was particularly relevant in times of war, where there were a higher proportion of unmarried women to unmarried men. in a social structure that doesn't permit sex outside of marriage and where sex is not to be part of a casual physical relationship but rather part of a more permanent and emotionally-involved relationship, multiple marriages were seen to be an answer.

it was considered cruel to require women to abstain from sex simply because there weren't enough men around; nor should they be taken advantage of by men using them casually for sex. so it was a social structure that was seen as the best solution for those particular circumstances.

is it still relevant today? well, the fact is that it is happening, and my sense is that the number of polygamous marriages is on the rise. when they happen in a western country, the problem is that the legal protections for women are not available. so, for example, the right to claim maintenance, to ensure a fair share of the husband's time, to receive a fair divorce settlement are not available to these women. in fact, if things go sour, there is really nowhere to turn.

there are some questions which arise. if polygamy is illegal in australia and nz, how come it's happening? that's simply because there will be a marriage ceremony held in a mosque but never legally registered. in terms of the law, it is a de facto relationship, and there is no law in this country that prohibits people from being in more than one de facto relationship. which means that if the first marriage is legally recognised, and the second marriage is a de facto one, then the second wife will have no rights in law. that is not a good state of affairs, no matter how you look at it.

the second question is why women would enter into such relationships. i can understand the first wife agreeing to a second marriage. if the alternative means divorce and abandonment, and the prospect of poverty and having to raise children on her own, staying in the marriage might be an option she prefers. the husband would then be required (under islamic law) to provide full maintenance for her ie food, house, clothes and medical expenses. he would also be required to spend half his time with her and her children. for many women, half a husband is better than no husband at all, and if he is earning well, is a much better option than the DPB and a lonely life with no sex.

what i really don't understand is the "other woman", or the second wife. what kind of woman would want to intrude into an existing relationship? why would you even think about taking another woman's husband away from her? is romantic love so powerful and blind that it totally ignores the suffering of another woman and her children? i just don't get it, but i know it happens and not just in the muslim world. i know of a few of non-muslim women whose husbands have come home, packed their bags and announced that they are going to live with the woman they have secretly been conducting an affair with for some months now. i heard of one charming fellow who did this when his wife was pregnant with their first child. ouch. aside from his being such an a*&*hole, i really wondered what his new girlfriend was thinking and why she would want to be with a guy who could walk out in a situation like that.

unfortunately there are no laws against this kind of behaviour. and there are no laws you could enact that would in any way be helpful - unless you go for the catholic option of not allowing divorce at all. other than that, there are basically two options. either you bring the full force of the law down on the man who has two wives, and send him to jail. in which case the women both lose a partner and are unlikely to thank you for ruining their lives which were going very well until now. or you legally recognise both marriages, and ensure that both women get the full protection of the law.

except that the second option seems to provoke quite a high degree of moral outrage. which takes me to the point i was trying to make on the radio. it just seems to be a little hypocritical to get all steamed up about polygamy, yet allow pornography to be legal. i'd say most of the latter is much more degrading to women than polygamy, in terms of the objectification of women, the ignoring of their sexual needs and desires, the regular brutality and the sheer misogyny of most porn. plenty of porn shows apparently happy threesomes which we are supposed to accept as being perfectly legal, because it's between consulting adults. yet polygamy (and the islamic version categorically does not allow threesomes; it's strictly one woman at any one time) which may involve committed and loving relationships is viewed as immoral. is seems to me that finding the one acceptable and the other not would involve just a wee bit of cognitive dissonance. you'd either want both to be illegal (because it's immoral and degrading), or both to be legal (because it's an activity entered into by consenting adults).

which is not to say that i advocate polygamy. i don't think it's an ideal situation. i hate how it is used in many countries in a way that is harmful and degrading to women. ie first wife gets old so just go out and get a younger version. happy days. for the husband at least.

and the one thing i totally oppose is one or both of the wives living on social welfare. according to islamic law, it's completely wrong. the man is responsible for providing and if he can't provide for one wife, then he is required not get married until his circumstances improve. if he can't provide for more than one wife, then he has to stick to one. there are no two ways about it, and i couldn't stand a situation where the state welfare system was enabling polygamy. wrong, wrong, wrong.

so to conclude: i'm really confused. well conflicted would be the better word. i know of women in a polygamous marriage in this country who are extremely happy. i don't see how i can judge them or tell them that what they are doing is wrong. they don't feel any sexual jealousy so who am i to feel it on their behalf? isn't it a learned behaviour anyway? on the other hand, i recognise how polygamy leads to gross inequality and quite a lot of suffering for many women in such marriages. someone, please give me an easy answer.

* hat tip for links to irfan yusuf

20 comments:

tussock said...

I can't see how the answer is at all difficult. If spouse B wants another marriage, they inform spouse A, give some limited time for notice of divorce if desired, and then proceed to marry spouse C.

If spouse A likes, they could also marry spouse C, or not. Tidy up the divorce proceedings to account for multiple connected and unconnected earners.

What you or I think of that is irrelevant, as long as all parties are informed and accepting, and the laws and financial recordings are set up to cope with divorces and deaths from the more complex marriages.

Benefits? Everyone should get one. What's marriage got to do with it?

#13baby said...

The obligation for a husband to support a wife has always seemed to me to be a less misogynist way of phrasing an extremely misogynist idea - that women should be dependent on men for their financial wellbeing, and that of their children.

I think it would be easier to simply get rid of marriage altogether and let men and women (and men and men, and women and women) get involved in as many relationships as they wish. The only way the law should get involved is to ensure that when relationships end property is distributed equally between all partners. Religious people can have marriage ceremonies if they want, but they would be purely for their own satisfaction and would have no legal force.

Nikki (Mother of the Devil Child) said...

Since becoming hopelessly addicted to the show 'Big Love' I've had a differing view on polygamous relationships. Yes, heavily influence by a TV show. Ridiculous, I know.

Anyway, in theory it could actually work out to be quite a happy union. Sometimes I'd give my left leg to pawn the man off on someone else for a few nights... or alternatively, be able to share the job of raising my child with another woman.

Unfortunately, there are also too many scenarios (as you point out) where this could relate in inequality and most often the ones affected are women.

But I don't know if I would write off polygamy. Write off domestic violence. Write off controlling behaviour. Write off women having financial dependence on a man etc etc. But all these things are not limited to polygamous relationships. They are very much present in marriages between two people.

So, in short I guess I agree with the above two commenters ;)

stargazer said...

tussock, yes your answer is simple. but under present law it's illegal (unless spouse A gets a divorce).

13baby, yes that's all very nice but doesn't work under current law. it would require a change to the marriage act and the civil union act that no party or individual MP would be willing to submit a bill on. re the maintenance thing, it's actually supposed to recognise the fact that the woman is the one that goes through the pain and hardship of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. she should be able to go through those experiences without having the stress of financially supporting herself as well. but you can see that as misgynistic if you want to.

big love - yuk. watched a couple of episodes and hated the bitchiness, infighting, the whole set-up in fact. polygamy is so not for me!

Deborah said...

What I find hypocritical about the people flinging up their hands in horror about polygamy is that many of them are quite happy o engage in serial monogamy, which looks suspiciously like polygamy / polyandry to me, just strung out over time.

But, I'm all for consenting adults doing what they want. If one man and several women want to live together in a marriage, then it's none of my business.

That said, I think that polygamy, and serial monogamy, often mask patriarchal power structures - men trading in an old wife for a younger (better?) version, and treating the older wife as used-up goods. I think there are dangerous issues of consent with polygamy; if a woman will be left with no support structures, no money, no standard of living equivalent to her former husband's, if she does not agree to polygamy and is divorced instead, then the 'consent' is not real.

So I have mixed feelings about polygamy too. In theory, I can't see any problem with it; in practice, I can see that it could be exploited by more powerful partners (usually men). So to me, it makes sense to legally recognise polygamous relationships, in order to ensure that no person is disadvantaged within polygamous relationships.

#13baby said...

Stargazer, of course what I'm talking about doesn't work under current law. Neither does what you're proposing. I presumed we were discussing ways the law could change, not different ways to interpret it.

Similarly, I agree that what I am proposing is not likely to come about under current political circumstances, but neither is legalised polygamy. Can you imagine a party or MP submitting a bill to allow multi-partner marriages?

If we're going to limit ourselves to discussing what's politically practical in the medium term there's not much to be said on the issue.

Regarding the man supporting the woman, I agree that the women deserves, to say nothing of needs, financial support during the period of childbirth and childrearing. But I think that support should come from society as a whole, not the husband. If you were promoting paid parental leave and a state subsidy to mothers then I would be utterly supportive. But this idea of men supporting their wives, I can't get on board. (And that's leaving aside the whole issue of unmarried mothers)

But while we're on the issue of polygamy, what do people think about the idea of one woman with multiple husbands? Would it empower her by giving her greater ability to choose a mate, or would it create an imbalance of male/female power in the household?

Anna McM said...

I agree that many of the problems of polygamy are simply problems with marriage - or, more specifically, the way that a marriage privatises the responsibility for caring the individuals within it. Whether a man has one wife or several, his obligations to keep her/them are pretty weak. He can put his whole pay packet into the pokies, and his wife/wives/children will have to go without.

When a woman gets married, she loses the claim for subsistence on the state that she has when she was single, but she can't compel her husband to support her either. If she doesn't like it, her option is usually to take her kids and go on the DPB - ie be poor and single instead of poor and married.

If a marriage came with a guarantee that the women and children within it would be cared and provided for, I don't think the polygamy/monogamy issue would matter nearly so much. I think the fact that we regard our spouses' bodies/sexual personae in a proprietorial way is a social construct which could change. The idea of romantic love as we think of it today is only a couple of hundred years old, and came from a Western context. In many places, marriage was hitherto an economic arrangement. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it shows that ideas about marriage, love and sex can and do change.

stargazer said...

When a woman gets married, she loses the claim for subsistence on the state that she has when she was single, but she can't compel her husband to support her either.

that's only under nz/wetern law. under islamic law she does have a legal right and can ask the courts to enforce it. or she take what she needs from his income and property without his permission, to maintain herself.

re romantic love, it's older than a couple of hundred years and not a solely western construct at all. shakespeare's romeo and juliet, for example? and if you read poetry from india dating back hundreds of years ago, there is much about undying (and actually quite obsessive) monogamous romantic love. even in the countries where polygamy has been practiced for hundreds, the notion of monogamous romantic love is still idealised, and i really don't understand how that works or indeed survives.

#13baby said...

If a marriage came with a guarantee that the women and children within it would be cared and provided for, I don't think the polygamy/monogamy issue would matter nearly so much.

There would also need to be some provision to make divorce harder for men in this scenario, to prevent them from simply divorcing wives they didn't want to support and freeing them from their obligation.

Also, I realise that the opposite scenario is more common, but shouldn't women be obliged to financially support their husbands too? I.e. in a marriage where there are no children, the husband loses his job but the wife doesn't?

George said...

Or, as a friend has suggested, we break the monopoly the state has on marriage.

We allow other legally enforceable agreements to be made without the supervision of the state. Why not do the same for marriage? That way, people would be able to marry whoever and however many they wanted.

Short of that, I'm happy for the law to allow multiple partnerships to be recognised.

Anna McM said...

Yep - the obligation to support your spouse runs both ways, but of course pregnancy and childbirth make women more likely to be dependent on men for income/subsistence than vice versa.

The recent origins of romantic love is something I've read about a few times during my thesis travels (a book called 'Alternate mates' by Tom Someone - I think - amongst other things). I don't recall the details, but the critiques were very much limited to Western European society (from which I suppose we derive a fair chunk of our NZ marriage customs). From memory, 'Alternate mates' argued that a pre-industrial revolution 'family' included people who weren't actually related, ie servants. Young girls from poor families were sent into service, and were understood to be members of the families they worked for. Men of poorer classes married if and when they could afford a wife, and a potential mate had to be healthy enough to be economically productive, and to produce enough kids to look after their parents in old age. That doesn't mean that romantic love didn't exist, but it's hard to imagine it would be a defining factor in marital choices.

I don't know heaps about all this, so I wouldn't want to defend it too vigourously, but I think that a class analysis of marriage is important (primogeniture etc). There may be a difference between the idealisation that is found in the arts and practice, particularly amongst poor folks. After all, Romeo and Juliet killed themselves because their parents would not let them marry for political reasons!

The Islamic law which gives women an enforceable claim on her husband during marriage is way more friendly than anything NZ law has to offer. Still, it suffers from the limitation of the husband's ability to provide; eg, if the husband is injured in an accident, the privatised marriage arrangement will not be able to meet his, her or their children's needs.

This is very interesting and enjoyable - keep discussing everyone!

stargazer said...

ah, but in an islamic system, the state will provide when the husband is incapacitated. the woman is never required to maintain herself, though she can is if she wants. if her husband dies, then her nearest male relatives are required to pay her maintenance (father, brother(s), uncle(s)). if she has no living male relatives or none that earn enough to support her, then the state pays her maintenance. she is never actually required to take on the stress of financially supporting herself.

ah romantic love, it's what everyone aspires to these days. there are so many young (and not-so-young) people i know, waiting to find "the one", which places such a high expectation on relationships that it sets them up for failure. which is why i'm definitely not a fan of the "romantic comedy" genre of movies, romance novels, mushy love songs, poetry etc etc. ok, me very boring. but it all seems like so much nonsense to me that i can't be bothered with it.

#13baby said...

Even if the Islamic system does require support by the state, and frankly that's not my understanding, the idea that a marriage should mostly be about economic security for the woman is quite heartbreaking to me.

Get the state out of marriage and leave it up to individuals to make relationships with who, and how many, they want. Similarly, the duty of supporting those unable to support themselves (including but not limited to women in childbirth) must be a societal one, not all placed on one person - be it the woman supporting her deadbeat unemployed husband or the abusive husband who is able to keep a woman by his side because he pays for her meals.

mike said...

Isn't polyandry/polygyny the other way around? The second part is what there are many of.

But it's an interesting post, I'd like to think about it some more. Big Love does present a situation where it works well for everybody concerned, but I don't know how realistic it is or how it would likely turn out in reality (guess: generally not that well).

Anna McM said...

Stargazer, I'd love to see you write some more about Islam and marriage - it's fascinating.

I feel dubious about romantic love, but this may simply be because I am cynical and bitter. However, I think it's fair to say that romantic love is possibly the most successful marketing tactic of all time.

If anyone has a spare two years, I strongly don't recommend you read 'Clarissa' by Samuel Richardson (it was until recently the longest novel in the English language), and/or some of the critiques of the novel. It's set at the time that the industrial revolution was shaking the aristocracy through the rise of a new middle class, and it talks a lot about romantic love vs marriage for political/economic alliances. That's interesting, but God knows the novel isn't.

ideologicallyimpure said...

I have no idea how the law actually stands in NZ at the moment, but I personally wouldn't object to some kind of amendment to de facto-couple rules allowing people to be assessed as participating in more than one de facto relationship simultaneously. Which would/should give legal recognition to the reality of people living in polygamous/polyamorous relationships without necessarily legitimatizing polygamy-inducing multiple marriage ceremonies.

If that makes ANY kind of sense.

The Comptroller said...

"but in an islamic system, the state will provide when the husband is incapacitated"

This is, to use a technical term, complete cobblers. In Islamic countries, well, go to Tunisia and have a look (I find these PC romanticised images of primitive countries irritating - like the people who think Tibet was some sort of hippy paradise before the Chinese turned up. The locals revolted for a reason you know).

But my real question is, in NZ can one me Married and United to different people at the same time?

stargazer said...

comptroller, not all countries with a muslim majority implement islamic law as they should. tunisia is an interesting one for you to pull out. i've heard from a tunisian friend that they are very much against the practice of islam eg women can't wear headscarves, prayer is discouraged. also, could it be that many of the problems in these "primitive" countries are a result of poverty rather than anything else?

anna, a post on islamic marriage would probably not be a very happy one. there's always that disconnect between theory and practice; and the social structures based on culture rather than religion that inhibit and restrict women.

#13baby said...

Comptroller, Stargazer is right. The Islamic system she is talking of is entirely theoretical - it's not enacted anywhere AFAIK.

Unfortunately there's a real tendency at work these days to conflate all Muslim countries with one another and to presume what one Muslim says is believed universally... in other words to believe that diversity of opinion does not exist among worshippers of Islam. It's like christianity really. One christian will say 'clearly the Bible tells us XYZ' and another will say 'You what? Bollocks!'

epskee said...

My partner is muslim, and has a number of friends who have more than one wife, although their marriage isnt legally recognised here. They all apprear to be normal marriages, some even taking place with aussie born women as well as "imports". I dont know where to stand on the issue. My feminist sensibilities say "whoa, hold up mister" but at the same time, my intelligence sees that these marriages actually seem to work better than the majority of my aussie friends "western" marriages.

From asking my fella, it seems that there are requirements for taking additional wives, and the rules seem reasonable (in that you must be capable of providing for the additional wife & children, as well as the existing family not being adversly affected - both financially and emotionally). From their explination the most common "traditional" reason to take additional wives is in the case where a brother is killed at war, and the wife and children would be alone and incapable of providing for themselves, that by taking this woman as his own wife, he protects and provides for her and her children, not only in the physical sense but also spiritually, as an unmarried adult is thought to be incomplete (not dissimilar to well entrenched western ideas that make a spinster feel inadequate)

As in ANY society, rules (be they religious or civil laws) are always broken by some, and of course what was intended by allah is certainly abused for the benefit of some, however the original intentions seem reasonable. Should this become law in my country? I dunno..... Im still greedy and dont see why I should share what he does not.

in a country like australia where there is ample opportunity for a woman to be as self sufficient as a man, and who can be single and/or childless into her 30's and not be considered a failure, this probably doesnt have much benefit beyond hubby still getting a legover when the first missus claims a headache (because of course its all about the penis and its satisfaction to the exclusion of all else) however in alot of countries (including that which my partner was born in) this remains to this day a legitimate option, and more likely than not, the best option.

Particularly whilst the men continue to kill each other over thousand year old squabbles, but thats a WHOLE other debate.

(apologies for the long comment)