Now there’s a headline you don’t see every day, and yet I have take it from today’s Guardian. Lady Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion and a leading Muslim peer, is concerned and told the BBC:
“There has to be a culture change and that has to brought about by policymakers taking a very clear stance on this issue, saying that, in this country, one married man is allowed to marry one woman.
“And that must be the way for everyone who lives in this country.”
So this is not about Mormons, this is about Muslims, some of whom happen to believe that a man should be allowed multiple wives. But the first thing that came into my mind when I read the Guardian article was that Lady Warsi wanted to replace one sort of religious stricture with another one.
To start with, one man and one woman is not the way it has to be for everyone in this country. One man can marry one other man if he wants to. (There’s the old issue of civil unions and “marriage”, but let’s leave that aside for now.) And it goes further than that, because one of the main reasons that gay and lesbian couples want legal recognition of their relationship is because of the legal status and rights it affords them.
People in the UK sometimes to engage in polyamorous relationships, but because bigamy is illegal those relationships cannot have any legal standing and one or more parties (generally mistresses) are disadvantaged. As I understand it, under Islamic law a polygamous relationship can obtain legal recognition and all parties are covered. Indeed, again as I understand it (and I’m being cautious here because I know very little about Islam), the Qur’an exhorts Muslims only to take only additional wives if they are confident that they manage more than one fairly and justly.
Now of course there is a feminist angle here. To start with, if men are allowed multiple wives then women should be allowed multiple husbands. That should go without saying. And just in case Mr. Heinlein is looking down on me, group marriages should be OK too. But from a feminist viewpoint, complaining about polygamy is mostly to do with complaining about the idea than men can “own” women. While polygamy might encourage such views, monogamous men often view their wives as property too. What we really ought to be campaigning for is equal legal status, not for the enforcement a particular sort of social arrangement.
Also I’d like to see religion removed from the process entirely. Government should not sanction one religion’s views on social organization over another’s. The objective should be to allow citizens to undertake contracts to form family units for the purpose of mutual support, the rearing of children and so on. Religious ideas about what forms of sexual behavior are “moral” should have nothing to do with it.
Obviously there are potential practical problems with this. If, in practice, polygamy is being used as an excuse to force young girls into providing unpaid domestic and sexual services, that’s something we need to be concerned about. But from a theoretical point of view I find it hard to see why polygamy needs to be illegal.