Polygamy, especially as it’s often discussed in an Islamic context, is usually seen as an Arab institution. Of course the Prophet (SAW) and his companions were mostly Arabs and to have multiple wives, not just four, was the norm. So although jealousy is a natural part of us all, the culture around presumably made things more acceptable to most women’s minds (I have written more about culture and polygamy here.)
So it was interesting to me when reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker, that the character Samuel, who is a black Christian missionary to Africa from the US, expressed his views on polygamy. Where they were living in Africa, carrying out their missionary duties, polygamy was also the norm. There was a feeling that the locals thought that the character Nettie was his second wife, and Samuel was not happy about this; you also get the sense his wife is jealous about this.
Later in the book, we are shown how Samuel has a mental shift about polygamy. He has observed friendship between co wives in the village where they are living and how they help each other, so that he then questions his own condemnation of polygamy.
Coming across this was interesting to me because,
- This showed a man who thought polygamy was wrong (I would think that most men would quietly think it was at least acceptable, if not desirable, especially if all parties are happy with the idea – even though they might publicly denounce it.) Maybe the culture of his Christian faith was a factor in cultivating the original mindset.
- This showed the the relationship between co wives is incredibly important in making a polygamy situation acceptable to all involved.
Maybe for some it works to keep the wives and their children (although this is another issue, which I have written about here) completely separate, but overall from what I’ve seen, the happiest women in polygamy are those who have a great relationship with their co(s), and I wonder if the husband might even get jealous of them!
Coming across polygamy in a context other than Islamic texts or discussions, if shown in a positive way, can help those of us having been brought up or living in a non-Muslim culture involved in polygamy. It can help us move towards a feeling of normalization of polygamy, and hence an easier acceptance of sharing a husband. So although it was not at all a major theme in The Color Purple, my ears pricked up, so to speak, when I came across these small snippets about polygamy in the book and I thought I must write about this!