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Malawi’s Polygamy Ban: Who Really Has the Best Interests of Women in Mind?

May 4, 2010

In an effort to curb growing rates of HIV and AIDS, the Malawi government is drafting a law to ban polygamy. Now,  the country’s Muslim population is arguing that the proposed ban violates their religious freedom. Interestingly, both supporters and opposition of the ban are citing the benefit of women as their main argument:

[A spokesman for the Muslim Association of Malawi] said with about 6% more women than men in Malawi, if polygamy were banned, many women would be left without a husband and become prostitutes.

The gender minister said the ban was necessary to prevent women from being abused in polygamous relationships.

She said problems occurred because men could not give their full attention to more than one woman.

“When a man has two, three, four wives, they are not co-operative – one will be the loved one,” said Gender Minister Patricia Kaliati.

Although polygamous marriages are not recognizes as civil marriages in Malawi, they are not currently penalized either. Since Sharia law permits the option of polygamy, a substantial amount of Muslims in Malawi engage in such relationships — in fact, it is estimated that one fifth of Malawian women are in polygamous marriages. Since polygamy is an optional choice rather than a mandate in Sharia law, however, I doubt the religious freedom argument will be successful in opposing the ban. Polygamy is not a requirement for practicing Islam, so the religious observance of Muslims will not necessarily be put in jeopardy if this ban is enacted.

As I have written before, I am not opposed to polygamy, polygyny or polyandry in principle, as I believe that some people truly do function best in polyamorous relationships, and it should not be up to the government to dictate whether monogamy or polyamory is more valid. Therefore, I don’t have an opinion as to whether or not polygamy should be banned in Malawi. What does trouble me about this situation, however, is how both government and religious institutions are attempting to declare what is best for women, rather than letting the women voice their own opinions. It is true that Patricia Kaliati, Malawi’s Minister of Gender, Child Welfare, and Community Services, is the public face of the ban, and she does speak on behalf of the government and, ostensibly, on behalf of Malawian women. But as I read about this situation, the majority of the voices represented in the discussion are male. They talk about women, but Kaliati is the only female voice truly represented. Why aren’t Muslim and secular women at the forefront of this case? And what do feminists think about polygamy? It seems to me that perspective is the one most crucial to this debate, and it is the one being completely ignored. What we have instead are two large political bodies — the Malawian government and the country’s Muslim leadership — voicing their thoughts on what they believe is best for women. The notion of what women believe is best for women is not even being considered. That thoughtlessness and disregard for a woman’s autonomy bothers me far more than the idea of optional polygamy.

What are your thoughts? Does a ban on polygamy restrict the religious freedom of those who practice it? And does either side in this argument really have the best interests of women in mind?

4 Comments
  1. Jessica Mack permalink*
    May 4, 2010 6:22 pm

    I’m glad you wrote this post, Carrie. This issue is such a perennial and sticky one, and has come up in the US in the context of the FLDS. I’ve often thought that the laws against bigamy and polygamy (which isn’t illegal in the US by Federal Law, incidentally, but illegal by 50 State laws) remind me very much of lingering laws against sodomy. Archaic, oppressive, and a bit askew in terms of their intent to do good.

    I think “for the good of women” is such a prop argument that people just throw around, like saying “if you don’t do this, innocent kittens will die” Who can argue with that? It deserves a closer look and, as you say, the voices of feminists from those countries themselves. I would suspect dissent. But the truth is that there are lots of practical reasons for polygamy and sometimes it does work out to the benefit of women and their kids. Abuse and oppression of women can happen in singular marriages…non-marriages…really any time. I’m not convinced that polygamy ups those chances.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      May 5, 2010 10:17 am

      Abuse and oppression of women can happen in singular marriages…non-marriages…really any time.

      You nailed it. And, honestly, I think the fact that polygamy is illegal in the U.S. is the reason why many people do associate abuse and oppression with those types of relationships. After all, when a system isn’t regulated and is only practiced by fringe religious groups (like the FLDS), there is no way for the government to effectively prevent against abusive situations (such as an elderly man forcing a 14-year-old girl into marriage). If polygamy was legal in the U.S. (and elsewhere) and properly regulated by the government, I think we would see an increase in healthy, consensual marriages, as well as an increase in protections against abuse when it does occur.

  2. May 5, 2010 2:08 am

    I agree fully with your conclusions! They have also to listen to the voices of women! Now it likes more a fighting between christians (majority) and muslims (minority). Christians are against polygamy. See e.g.the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Adultery, divorce, polygamy, and free union are grave offenses against… marriage.” Even the Pope has recently urged African bishops to fight polygamy (and divorce!)… Source: http://bit.ly/bYdzIN
    The question is if a ban on polygamy resolves the problems of HIV/AIDS. A lot of people in Malawi have an extramarital affair (2000: men: 16,3%; women: 0,5%; see: Pamela Druckerman: Lust in translation)…
    Concerning the voices of women, this recent study I found interesting to read: ‘C’est lui, le seul coq (He is the only rooster): A Study of Women’s Rights in Polygamous Marriages in Bafou, Cameroon Source: http://bit.ly/cl4srk

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      May 5, 2010 10:10 am

      I think you may be right, Pieter, that this is more about religious difference and morality than it is about HIV/AIDS. Banning polygamy seems like an awfully roundabout, indirect solution to combating HIV/AIDS — why not just focus on condom usage and comprehensive sexual education? Particularly since polygamy is a practice associated with a religious minority, it does seem like a way for the government and religious majority to keep the minority in check. I don’t doubt that the Malawian government truly does care about HIV prevention — but banning polygamy probably is not the most effective prevention method, so this situation does seem a little suspicious.

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