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Women Weigh In On “Polygamy Club”

October 27, 2009

Image via Sheikyermami

Islamic law permits the practice of polygamy under certain specific circumstances. If, for instance, a man’s wife is chronically ill or barren, it is preferable for him to enter into a polygamous relationship rather than suppress his sexual desires or divorce his wife. For these reasons, polygamy is a legal (but rarely practiced) lifestyle for Muslims in some countries.

In an attempt to make the practice more mainstream, the Ikhwan Polygamy Club was recently founded in Malaysia. According to the Associated Press, the club is a matchmaking service that “claims the noble aim of helping single mothers, reformed prostitutes and women who feel they are past the marrying age.” Having found some success in its country of origin, the club is looking to start a new branch in Indonesia.

Supporters of the polygamy club argue that the practice will help marriages, not hurt them:

The club claims to number 300 husbands and 700 wives. It hopes to cultivate examples of happy households to counter women’s rights activists who say some spouses and children suffer in polygamous marriages. Club members say polygamy deters adultery and would improve the marriage prospects of ex-prostitutes if more men were available to marry them.

Meanwhile, the idea of the polygamy club is causing controversy in Indonesia, a country that has debated the legality of polygamy in the past. This time, the controversy is less about legal matters and more about morality and human rights. In particular, the matter is being hotly debated among feminists:

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, director of the Institute for Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice does not oppose men having several spouses, but said the club should not advertise openly.

“If they did it privately, that would be fine,” she said, citing the acceptance of polygamy under Islam and by the Indonesian state according to specific requirements.

However, Yohanna, a member of the same women’s rights group, said the club effectively promotes abuse.

“While we are campaigning against domestic violence, which includes polygamy, there is a group campaigning that polygamy — which hurts other women — is a positive thing,” Yohanna told MetroTV.

Personally, I am not opposed to the concept of polygamy or polyandry. Just as monogamy works well for some relationships, polyamory works well for others. It’s a matter of personal choice and taste, and the stigma against marrying multiple partners in the Western world unfairly values monogamous relationships over polyamorous relationships, which isn’t right. But because polygamy is practiced more often (and more visibly) than polyandry, and because women who enter polygamous relationships don’t necessarily enter them by choice, the situation can easily become sticky.

Alicia at Muslimah Media Watch poses some interesting questions about the feminist nature of polygamy:

Like polyamory and open marriages, polygamy is not common for obvious reasons, with jealousy being the main one. And while for the few women whose rights are respected and protected (in some countries), how do their choices impact on all other women in general? Will a concept of polygamy that is truly women-centric subvert a system in which some women see sharing a husband the only way out of economic or social hardship? Will every wife have a happy sex life? Tightening conditions on such marriages may appear as posing restrictions on a woman who wants to express her rights, but at the same restricts men from marrying women for exploitative reasons often disguised as noble ones.

While it is certainly true that some women willingly choose to live a polygamous lifestyle, not all women entering such relationships are acting on their own self-agency. The limits placed on polygamy in places like Indonesia and Malaysia may be enough to prevent women from entering such relationships against their will, but if the polygamy clubs are successful in their aim to make the practice fully mainstream, such protection may diminish. The Ikhwan Polygamy Club claims to be genuinely interested in helping women, and it’s possible their actions are sincere. But how long will it be before women are forced into polygamy against their will, rather than remaining an option exclusively for those women really interested? It’s a slippery slope, and polygamy clubs may do more harm than good for women looking to get married.

What are your thoughts? Is a polygamy club a positive choice for marginalized women who want to marry but lack the opportunity? Or is it yet another way for men to oppress women? How can women participate in healthy, feminist, polygamous or polyandrous relationships, if that’s how they choose to love?

  1. Christine permalink
    October 27, 2009 9:03 am

    I would be closer to fine with polygamy if it were ever a question of a woman being allowed to have more than one husband. Since it generally seems to be one-sided, with men taking their pick and having the power–and since I don’t see that changing anytime soon–I definitely agree that it marginalizes women’s choices and their positions in relationships. Boo, hiss.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      October 27, 2009 9:34 am

      Interestingly, some cultures do practice polyandry. According to Wikipedia, certain communities in Tibet, Nepal and India practice polyandry. That being said, you’re right that, in general, polygamy is far more common and that leads to inequities. Which is a shame, because polygamy/polyandry should be options for people who really do get something out of it. Maybe someday…

      • Sonya permalink
        October 27, 2009 9:06 pm

        Cultures that practice polyandry are more men who are wife-sharers than women with multiple husbands: it is still the men with the authority. These cultures also commonly practice female infanticide: that’s why the men outnumber the women.

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