In Australia, marriage is changing. Cohabitation and kids before marriage are becoming the norm, and soon – hopefully – Australians will be allowed to marry a person of the same sex.
But one thing that remains resolutely unchanged is the number of people who make a marriage. In Australia, a legal and social consensus firmly sets that number at two.
While polygamy - the marriage of more than one spouse at the same time - is one of the last remaining taboos of Western society, it is relatively common globally. Polygamy is legal in 58 out of 200 countries around the world, including across much of Africa and in many Middle Eastern states.
The frequent disparity in marriage rights given to men and women in countries that permit polygamy is one of the reasons the United Nations Human Rights Committee recommended in a 2000 report that polygamy be outlawed.
It is important to note that when we talk about polygamy, often what we’re really talking about is polygyny – where a man takes more than one wife. Polyandry, where a woman takes more than one husband, is a much rarer practice. The frequent disparity in marriage rights given to men and women in countries that permit polygamy is one of the reasons the United Nations Human Rights Committee recommended in a 2000 report that polygamy be outlawed.
Some of the most popular proponents of polygyny in history have been Mormons, famously depicted in HBO drama Big Love and reality series Sister Wives.
Plural marriage was permitted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between 1852 and 1890. Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, is believed to have married 28 wives, while Brigham Young, the church’s second president, married 51 women and fathered 56 children.
Today, the LDS Church strictly prohibits polygamy, says Elder Robert J. Dudfield, Associate Area Director in the Pacific Area Public Affairs Office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It was a part of the teachings of the Church from the early 1840s until the early 1890s but has not been practised for over 125 years,” he says in a statement to SBS.
“From a Mormon perspective the subject of polygamy is not a subject that is generally discussed because it has been not practised for well over a century.”
Elder Dudfield says that polygamous groups and individuals in and around Utah, like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the subject of the notorious Short Creek Raid in 1953 as well as more recent raids in the 2000s, are a source of confusion for outside observers.
“These polygamists and polygamist organisations have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term 'Mormon' is sometimes incorrectly applied to them.”
While the LDS Church has moved away from plural marriage, other faiths permit polygyny. Islam allows men to take up to four wives, albeit with conditions (polyandry is not allowed). A husband must provide for and treat each of his wives equally, and consent is crucial. “If there is no consent, then it is not a valid marriage,” says a Muslim community activist and advocate of polygamy who wished to remain unnamed.
"To this day, all my older half-siblings view my mother very fondly. They love my mother.”
Ideally, each wife lives in a separate household. Intimacy is “strictly monogamous” and “affection is a completely private matter,” says the man, who grew up in a polygamist family in Lebanon. His father took a second wife when his first wife became ill, and the man says the two women formed a strong friendship.
“My mother immediately looked after his previous wife and helped raise the five children. To this day, all my older half-siblings view my mother very fondly,” he says. “They love my mother.”
Polygamy in Islamic culture has its roots in an historic gender imbalance caused by the deaths of large numbers of men in war. Plural marriage helped protect the welfare of widows and reduce the number of unwed – and thus unprovided-for-women.
The supporter of polygamy I spoke to sees it as the natural solution to a surplus of women he says still exists today (though not according to 2011 Census data, which found a surplus of 25-year-old single men and equal numbers of single men and women in their 30s).
He also considers it a better alternative to the adultery that is so common in Western society. Polygyny, in his view, represents men’s obligation to fulfil the right of women to marry.
“It’s a woman’s choice,” he says. “She is the one who is empowered to say yes or no…without her consent nothing is going to happen. A woman wilfully and knowingly walks into this relationship because in her mind, this is an ideal relationship for her.”
In the unlikely event polygamy is legalised, it is hard to imagine large numbers of single women in Australian society signing up to be second wives. The Muslim community member I spoke to concedes that the practice is extremely rare in Australia. There are no official national figures in Australia, but it is possible the situation here is comparable to that in the United Kingdom, where there may be up to 20,000 polygamous unions, representing just one per cent of the British Muslim population of 2.7 million people.
“She is the one who is empowered to say yes or no…without her consent nothing is going to happen. A woman wilfully and knowingly walks into this relationship because in her mind, this is an ideal relationship for her.”
Islamic Council of Victoria vice president Adel Salman says polygamy isn’t a priority among young Muslims in Australia. “They’re only thinking about finding the right partner, and that’s tough enough as it is. No one is talking about ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if I had more than one wife,’” he says.
"The main thing people are looking for is a good family life, and allocating the right amount of time to family, to children, selecting the right partner and building a life together.”
The lack of consensus in the Muslim community about polygamy could explain the lack of a coordinated campaign to decriminalise the practice. Another possible explanation is Islamophobia. Recent news reports of polygamists claiming Centrelink payments preceded a wave of abuse directed at the Muslim community. The media coverage was “sensationalist”, says Salman.
It was the abusive phone calls and threats of physical violence made to my unnamed source, his family, and the Muslim community more broadly that convinced him to avoid putting his name to pro-polygamy views in the future.
“Mainstream society doesn’t have major issues with mistresses, girlfriends, multiple de factos [and] polyamorous relationships...They have come to terms with them, but because [polygamy] is alien to them, it gets people’s backs up.”
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