Nowadays, monogamy is the norm in most cultures – well, serial monogamy at least. Having more than one sexual partner is usually accepted, if not expected, but to have more than one at the same time – no, no. If you do, it is often under the guise of mistresses or swingers, which although often frowned upon, will still be just within the boundaries of things that make people’s jaws drop or pass laws against. But for polygamy, this is usually not the case; legitimizing this way of life has been seen as the final frontier, now a threat more than same sex marriages. I can see that when the consent aspect is neglected there is an issue, but for consenting adults, what is different to consenting gay couples? Right now in 2016, the culture of many societies is that polygamy just isn’t natural, it’s not something we should allow.
And on a side note, because it is most often polygyny (more than one wife, rather than polyandry (more than one husband) the equality card is also brought in – it’s not fair on women. However, I’d be interested to see if women with more than one husband would be treated the same as men with more than one wife in the monogamy-supporting countries!
So what is it in these cultures that sustains the opinion of what relationship is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’?
There is the legislation itself; until fairly recently in the UK for example, adultery was a crime i.e. having another relationship while still married, and is still a beeline reason for a divorce.
And there are the more subtle influences such as popular music, the lyrics emphasising the one true love you will only have, ‘You are my everything’, ‘I dare you to let me be your one and only.’ Culture is also reflected in the language; in English, your spouse is your ‘other half’, not your other quarter/third – of course.
Monogamy in children’s books and toys, such as Barbie and Ken predominate. This is so also for homosexual relations, but it will probably not be long before same sex couples will be portrayed through items such as toys. There are already books available depicting diverse families within children’s stories such as Mommy, Mama, and me, so this shows that cultures do change. Cultures do influence the lives of those not fitting in with the norm, so I imagine it is now a lot easier for a gay person to come out than 25 years ago.
It is not only restricted to Western, ‘modern’ societies where polygamy is looked down upon. Despite it being legal in Pakistan, it is still a practice discouraged culturally. The way men often practice polygamy also contributes negatively to its cultural acceptance; unequal treatment and leaving a woman hanging in favour of the next, newer model of course gives polygamy a bad reputation. Unfortunately, happy polygamous families are rarely in the spotlight. There are the TV shows in the US which have depicted willing and happy as polygamous families such as Sister Wives and My Five Wives, although I imagine many people watch these to see if the jealousy and drama is as real as they imagine in polygamy situations.
Cultures supporting polygamy
So if we look at women who don’t mind polygamy or even want it as a family setup, often they will have been brought up in a culture where it is the norm. For example, in the article ‘My Two Mothers’ in SISTERS magazine about a family in Nigeria, polygamy was a normal thing and so having two ‘mothers’ was also. I have also heard of women whose family members start to have concerns if their son-in-law doesn’t take another wife.
Although there is usually natural jealousy that occurs (which we will look at soon insha Allah) the presiding culture has the capability to magnify or reduce this. In the time of the Prophet (SAW), the number of wives was unlimited and the ruling in the Qur’an actually limited it to four. So the wives of the Prophet (SAW) did have their jealous moments, but as well as a high level of iman and trust in Allah (SWT), they weren’t supplied with the ammunition of anti-polygamy sentiment that many modern day societies manufacture.
Polyamory (consensual non-monogamy) is becoming more and more accepted in Western cultures – but whether this will ever lead to equal treatment and acceptance in the law and society remains to be seen. If it ever does, I think the next generation of Muslim women should have an easier time if their husbands decide to take another wife.
Overriding the cultural influence
So if you are in polygamy, perhaps to begin with unwillingly, but still want to remain and be happy in your relationship with your husband, what can we learn here? Acknowledge that we are a product of nature and nurture, with our culture probably nurturing our jealousy so much that we need to counteract this somehow. Make that rock you may feel you are stuck between a softer place by surrounding yourself with positive examples of polygamy – join relevant Facebook groups, try to meet up with sisters who are happy in polygamy rather than those who would embolden the cultural norm of rejecting polygamy, maybe even encouraging you to the very hard place of divorce. And if you have daughters, try to show polygamy in a positive light, because for them it could also be a reality and they would then have the advantage of being brought up in a culture of acceptance rather than having to deal with the negative cultural influences and hence also find this kind of a relationship a severe trial. All this may be easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot because polygamy is here to stay whether your culture agrees with it or not.