UK to Get Tough on Polygamy?

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.

17 thoughts on “UK to Get Tough on Polygamy?

  1. I recall reading an article that blamed islamic terrorism on the islamic practice of polygamy… arguing that multiple wifes meant an oversupply of unwed and disgruntled young men. An interesting thesis but I suspect somewhat hard to prove. How many mormon terrorists have you heard of?ยจ

    On a more practical note – i fully agree that the state doesn’t need to mandate what form ‘marital relations’ should take. Interesting article!

  2. Paul:

    That sound like a classic piece of Islam-bashing to me. Young males are quite violence-prone enough without needed to be deprived of wives.

  3. Spot on. Re polygamy and Islamic strictures – if a Muslim man truly follows his religion, then it is almost impossible for anyone other than a saint to marry more then one woman, an argument used by Muslim women in calling for the practice to be dropped. I believe there is one Muslim country where it is illegal – Tunisia.

    Unhappily, there seems in some parts of the world to be more and more intrusion of religious morality into family law, and law generally, not less.

  4. It would be handy for criminals to form a polygamous union so that they don’t have testify against each other.

    There’s probably quite a list of contingent laws that would have to be revised in light of open-ended family unions of this nature: taxes, adoption, company, …

  5. Mike:

    Yes, nothing in life is easy. You can’t do anything without there being a possibility that some bad may come of it, or at the very least some ingenious person managing to come up with some bizarre combination of circumstances that might, given a fair wind and some totally unlikely coincidences, cause something bad to come of it.

    Sorry if I’m being snarky, but I have seen way too much of this sort of thing in fannish discussions. Every time someone suggests doing something new and interesting at conventions a mob of nitpicky killjoys descends upon them with predictions of a vast litany of disasters that will inevitably result if even the slightest change is made to the way we do things now. No one ever seems to stop to consider that, on balance, the outcome might be positive.

  6. Wow. Super-snarky indeed. Rational discussion = nitpicky killjoy.

    Forgive me for suggesting that there are consequences after you state “from a theoretical point of view I find it hard to see why polygamy needs to be illegal.”

    Perhaps you should simply disable comments nit-picks.

  7. Mike:

    Don’t be silly, I said above that there were practical problems. You raised some. All of them could apply equally well to gay marriage. Lot’s of them could have been applied years ago to making divorce simple. That’s not rational discussion, that’s refusal to even consider the issue.

  8. Accusing me of fannish killjoy nitpicking is not rational discussion.

    In comparing it with gay marriage, you are more or less equating quality with quantity. There are issues of a combinatorial nature to deal with here.

    I am not against polyamory – I have friends in various combinations and it seems to work for them. I’m not sure if any of them are in any civil union, but that’s not an issue for them.

    I don’t even have any religious bones to quibble but institutionalizing poly-relationships would have quite pervasive effects on many other parts of the law, particularly relating to property and custodial relationships. That’s not nitpicking over slight change.

  9. Mike:

    That’s better, now you are starting to make a point. But you haven’t actually got there yet because all you are doing is vague handwaving and doomsaying. Of course there will be problems, but you aren’t yet making a case for it being different.

    So: polygamy v gay marriage. Why is this quality v quantity, aside from the trivial point that one involves more people than the other? Explain. Why is a relationship between, say, two men a quality one, and one between, say, two women and one man merely quantity?

    As to other aspects of the law, we are already there thanks to the commonness of divorce. What we have right now is a situation of serial monogamy in which partners swap quite regularly, but there are never more than two in a marriage at any one time. That causes significant problems in areas such as property and custody of children. Why would allowing polygamous relationships make that significantly harder?

    By the way, I’m quite happy to entertain the prospect that you are right. There may be serious issues that I haven’t considered. But I want you to highlight those issues. I’m not prepared to accept “there will be problems” as sufficient to clinch an argument.

  10. You have a very condescending tone today. Blogger’s handwaving trumps commenter I suppose.

    “Why is a relationship between, say, two men a quality one, and one between, say, two women and one man merely quantity?”

    This is a particularly snarky attempt to rewrite what I said.

    Suppose at divorce -time you have a child who is the biological child of one or more of the poly-partners, and who is perhaps also the adopted child of one or more other poly-partners. That child lives on the property of one of the above or another. Your typical family court judge is going to have a nervous breakdown sorting out what’s best for the child in this situation. I don’t this is a particularly artificial situation given the existence of a poly-marriage. Inheritance issues are similarly complicated in the absence of some kind of structured pre-nup and wills.

    There’s going to be differences according to whether this is a “simple” group marriage (where divorce dissolves ALL parties from the union), or an enduring line-marriage where partners come and go. You’re in effect getting a domestic version of a corporation and all the complexities arising there as different blocs pursue different rights in relation to the corporate union.

  11. All of this could equally be used as an argument against divorce, or indeed against marriage. Family court judges already have a dreadful time working out what will be best for children. There are plenty of complicated inheritance issues too. The breakup of any marriage is complicated in the absence of contracts.

    Now admittedly adding more people to the mix increases complexity, and all parties involved need to understand that. I’m mindful of what Glenda said about about Muslim men almost needing to be saints to follow the rules imposed on them if they have more than one wife. That in itself ought to discourage people from doing it, or at least encourage them to have very clear contracts before doing so, though obviously some people are going to be daft.

    But none of this seems to me to be a killer argument against it being legal. People do all sorts of daft things. They drive fast cars, they over-indulge in narcotics and intoxicants, they climb mountains and dive in water-filled caves. All of these things can cause difficulties for society; most of them are legal.

    Also it can’t be impossible to manage. Polygamy is legal in some parts of the world. In the past it has been more widely accepted. Somehow those people managed with the legal and moral complexities that you worry about.

    So here’s where I got to. Yes, there are obvious practical problems. But if a group of people want to engage in a polygamous marriage, can come up with a clear contract as to what everyone’s rights and responsibilities are, and are prepared to accept the consequences if it all goes wrong, why should they not be allowed to do so? What is so special about polygamy that it absolutely must be illegal?

  12. Yeah, polygamy (or more accurately polygyny) exists legally here, and legal problems are handled in religious courts, not secular ones.

    They manage the legal complexities, true, but I can’t say, though, IMHO, that it is all done fairly.

  13. Glenda:

    I’m sure you are right about the fairness, but my point was only that it isn’t impossible. All sorts of forms of social organization can be made to work.

    Here’s another way to look at it. Many societies have made slavery work without huge legal problems. Nevertheless I’m pretty sure that most people reading this blog would say that slavery is wrong and should not be allowed. Is polygamy something that is also wrong and must be banned (as Lady Warsi appeared to be suggesting), or is it just something that is difficult?

    Another interesting angle on this came up over the weekend. As this Independent article explains, the UK government recognizes polygamous marriages carried out in countries where they are legal, except for immigration purposes. It will even pay social security benefits to polygamous families. Presumably the social services folks believe that trying to clamp down on it, and putting the husbands in jail for bigamy, is less desirable than allowing it to continue.

    And just to show how daft human’s can be over such things, here is Joe Gordon explaining about people who want the right to marry cartoons.

  14. Oh, I agree. I was just commenting on the present situation in this country.

    Maybe the solution would be that all “marriages”, to be legally recognised as such, would have to have a legal contract drawn up by lawyers. Religions could have their own contracts (A C of E one, a Catholic one, a Muslim one etc) while other people could decide on the kind of contract they wanted to fit their own particular choice. There would have been some kind of minimum requirement determined by the State to make it a “marriage”. (Oo-er, wouldn’t the lawyers have a field day working all that out.)

    I think I’m dreaming.

  15. It sounds a bit like Norlonto, but I don’t think it is unworkable. To a certain extent we have that already, because religions can and do punish believers for transgressing their own codes. Provided that they don’t do anything outside of the secular law that’s OK.

    For me the important issues should be “what harm is it doing?” and “are those involved prepared to accept the consequences of the way in which they want to live?”

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