In recent years the issue of Polygamy has received a great deal of attention. The purpose of this discussion is to examine the practice of polygamy. The research will uncover that although polygamy has some disadvantages including family division, there are also some very real advantages associated with the practice and a balanced view of the practice is often lacking in the western world.
Polygamy is defined as "marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time (polygamy)." In most cases polygamy occurs within the context of certain religions and/or social customs.
In fact Al-Krenawi (2006) reports that In cultures covering more than 850 societies across the globe, including Africa, Asia, the Middle East, North America and Oceania, such expanded family structures are known to occur (Hartung, 1982; Valsiner, 1989). In some practicing societies, rates of polygamy may include up to 50% of all marriages (Caldwell & Caldwell, 1993). In the Arab world, Chaleby found 8% to 13% of all Kuwaiti marriages to be polygamous; in neighboring countries, rates were higher (Chaleby, 1985; Al-Krenawi, 6)."
The most prominent religions that permit polygamy are Islam and certain forms of Mormonism.
For the purposes of this discussion the focus will be polygamy in the context of Muslim beliefs and social norms. In addition the discussion will only focus on men who have more than one wife (polygyny), it will not explore women having more than one husband.
Although polygamy is an ancient practice, it has received a great deal of attention in recent years. This attention has been mostly negative as it has pertained to polygamy in Islamic nations and in the Western world. Although polygamy often has as a foundation religious customs, it is often viewed as an institution in which women are not given an equal status with men. Although is some cases this is very true, there are places around the world that find polygamy to be a very natural type of family setting.
Polygamy and Islam
As it pertains to Islamic law polygamy, it is sanctioned by the Qur'an "Marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four" (Q., 4:3). Although polygamy is allowed it is not mandated. That is men can marry as many as four women but he does not have to marry four woman, he does not have to practice polygamy (Badawi, 1976). With this said, the practice of polygamy by Muslims, particularly those that live in the east, is common.
Throughout the history of Islam there has been some debate over the practice of polygamy. According to an article entitled "How far have reforms gone in Islam?"
Opposition of the traditionalists to a limitation of polygamy or its abolition was argued on the basis that, if it were forbidden, then the aforementioned Qur'anic verse that allows up to four wives would be obsolete. How could that be, when the Qur'an is the word of God?...[opponents argue] this Qur'anic injunction cannot have a legal weight; it can only have a moral weight. Equality between wives can, therefore, only be of a material nature and with regards to the number of nights the husband shares with them (Ghazal," 1989, pp. 81-82). Polygamy could then not only be legitimized, but it could also be legalized. A number of traditional arguments are proposed to justify polygamy: (i) it protects the sick, older, or barren wife from divorce, while ensuring progeny for the husband; (ii) it solves demographic problems, in times of war; and (iii) it is a practice far superior to the type of Western monogamy which allows extra-conjugal relationships that create social inequities and lead to social hypocrisy (Stowasser, 1994, p. 122). (Marcotte, 2004)"
Despite the controversy that exist concerning whether or not polygamy should be legal, many societies continue to embrace polygamy. It has become an important part of life in many cultures and is often reflective of religious norms.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Polygamy
Just as with anything else there are advantages and disadvantages associated with the practice of Polygamy. As it pertains to the advantages of polygamy, one of the main advantages in the context of Islamic law seems to be the fact that the women must be cared for and they must be cared for equally. That is, under Islamic Law a husband is not suppose to marry any woman unless he has the ability to take care of her needs. In theory this protect women from becoming destitute. Another advantage of polygamy under Islamic law is the fact that if the wife is old or cannot bare children the husband cannot divorce her.
Other advantages include increases in the number of offspring. This is of particular importance in certain societies that place a great deal of importance on large families. In addition, polygamous families can be advantageous because they increase the labor power of the family.
This can drastically improve the economic and social position of the family.
There are also disadvantages associated with polygamy. According to Slonim-Nevo & Al-Krenawi (2006)These disadvantages include "co-wife jealousy, competition, and unequal distribution of household and emotional resources and can generate acrimony between co-wives and between the children of the different wives (311)." These problems can lead to serious issues within the families and very unpleasant living conditions.
In addition to the aforementioned problems, several studies have suggested that wives and children of polygamy tend to have higher rates of mental illness. These higher rates of mental illness were most evident amongst senior wives in Kuwait. Senior wives in other countries including India and Nigeria have also been observed as having high rates of mental illness. Additionally studies have indicated that children in polygamous families tend to suffer from mental illness at a higher rate than children of monogamous families. According to the findings of these studies tend to have higher rates of lower school success, behavioral, physical and emotional issues and social adjustment problems than children from monogamous families (Al-Krenawi & Lightman, 2000; Cherian, 1990; Owuamanam, 1984). It has also been found that adolescents tend not to be supportive of polygamy because of the communication problems that often exist amongst the children of the other wives and the financial problems that often occur.
There can also be social disadvantages associated with polygamy particularly when it is practiced in the context of the western world. These social disadvantages exist because in the western world and in some countries in the east polygamy is illegal. As such people who practice it have to do so in secrecy.
This leads to the development of closed societies that are often filled with abuse because there is very little accountability.
Polygamy vs. Monogamy
There has been a great deal of attention paid to the differences between those involved in polygamous relationships and those involved in Monogamous relationships. A large percentage of the research conducted has focused on women. One such study compared the family function, life and marital satisfaction and mental health of women in polygamous and monogamous relationships. According to the author
Findings reveal differences between women in polygamous and monogamous marriages. Women in polygamous marriages showed significantly higher psychological distress, and higher levels of somatisation, phobia and other psychological problems. They also had significantly more problems in family functioning, marital relationships and life satisfaction (Al-Krenawi, 5, 2006)."
According to this particular study, those who were in polygamous relationships tended to have a more difficult time as it pertained to their mental health, family life and overall stability. Many pther studies of the kind have reflected identical findings.
Although the aforementioned findings are prevalent as it pertains to studies that compare polygamy to monogamy, some studies have also found that there are some families that cope quite well with polygamy. For instance, Slonim-Nevo & Al-Krenawi (2006) examined success and failure amongst polygamous families.
This particular study focused on 10 polygamous families in Southern Israel. Five of the families functioned well and five of the families functioned poorly. All of the families participating in the study consisted of one husband, two wives and children. Within the context of the study the research found the that well functioning families tended to be so because they had accepted polygamy as God's will. The authors also explain that well-functioning families tended to make a concerted effort to develop "functional relationships among all members, ensure equal sharing of resources among all family members, avoid minor disagreements, treat each other with respect, acknowledge the status of the senior wives, and encourage open relationships among all siblings and between children and their father's second wife (Nevo & Al-Krenawi 2006, 327)."
Overall this study was demonstrative of the idea that polygamous families can work when those involved establish certain "ground rules" and keep the lines of communication open. The research indicates that giving the proper respect to the senior wife is extremely important as it pertains to maintaining the right amount of synergy within the family. In addition it is also apparent that having…