Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Polygyny

This gossipy little article about the First and Second Ladies of Kenya reminds us all that it is not only the Muslims (and some Mormons) who practise polygyny, but quite a few African countries in general. I once started collecting sources for a feminist article on polygyny (one man being married to two or more women at the same time), but somehow I ran out of steam on it. Or rather, I ran to many other topics instead.

The gist of the feminist critique of polygyny seems pretty simple to me: The arrangement is never run on an egalitarian basis. If you imagine the relative power in a marriage as a cake, an egalitarian arrangement would give each spouse an equal wedge of it. Thus, adding an extra wife would mean that the existing wives AND the husband all get a smaller wedge now. This might make all of them consider before adding that new wife to the family.

The actual arrangements in polygyny are more like this: The husband gets three quarters of the cake and the remaining one quarter will be sliced into as many wedges as there are wives. The size of those slices will depend on how much the husband wants each wife to get. Adding new wives will not reduce the husband's relative power at all, but it will reduce the existing wives' power (though of course the husband may have to support the new wife, too, unless he actually has the wives all work and support him).

It is the unequal sharing of power in a polygyny that makes it an anti-feminist form of marriage. There is also some evidence suggesting that polygyny is not good for the children of the marriage, perhaps because one father is expected to be stretched over more and more children and because the mothers might have to fight each other for resources for the children.