Unequal music

Last night, I watched excerpts from Mitt Romney’s speech about his religion. He spoke beautifully about his faith and beliefs. But he did not once mention the elephant in the room – polygamy.

This post is not about Mormonism, or any other religion. Many of the Hindu gods I worship also have multiple wives. This post is about the practice of polygamy (Multiple marriages) or more specifically, polygyny (Men having multiple wives). Throughout this post, I use the word “polygamy” to mean polygyny, the most common form of polygamy.

I am trying to understand what causes the practice of polygamy, and whether the reasons are still valid today.

Polygamy is not new to us. Ancient history is replete with instances of kings having multiple wives, mistresses and whole harems. This is not surprising, as ancient history is also littered with instances of discrimination against women and beliefs on how men are somehow superior to women. That belief still continues, and you only need Lawrence Summers to prove it.

Some people point to religious beliefs to justify polygamy. It’s true, some religions allow polygamy. As far as I know, no religion stipulates polygamy. But I am not going to talk about religion here. I am interested in the social and economic causes of polygamy.

I can think of two possible causes for polygamy:

(i) The shortage theory: Women naturally outnumber men in the world. In case this ratio becomes even more lopsided due to wars or disease, leading to a scarcity of men, polygamy may occur. This then begs the question, do women have to marry? I will answer that with the second cause.

(ii) “Only men can earn”: If society actively disapproves of women working outside the home or pursuing any job that earns a living, then women may be forced to marry, as it is the only approved “occupation”.

Both of these reasons may have been true in the past; they are certainly not true today. So why does polygamy still exist? Perhaps because there is a diluted version of this situation, in the form of scarcity of jobs, discrimination against women, lower education levels among women and poverty. To my mind, none of these reasons adequately explains polygamy. But perhaps in the minds of some women, these are valid reasons. Perhaps polygamy is their only option, or more likely, they think it is their only option.

We can see why some women practice polygamy. But why do the men practice polygamy? Just because they can?

Isn’t it sad that we are “civilized” and “modern”, and yet we have some people who think one half of the human race is somehow not equal, but are some kind of fractional human beings? That some people can see women not as equal partners in a marriage, but only as one-half, or one-fourth or one-twentieth of a man?

While Romney spoke, this thought stood like an elephant in the room, plainly visible, looming large. Yet everyone tiptoed around it, looked away and pretended the elephant did not exist.


5 thoughts on “Unequal music

  1. Actually, it is my understanding that only a very small proportion of Mormons actually practice polygamy. A large number of them actually discourage it.

    But what about the other side – what about women that willingly participate in polygamy? (Granted, the large majority of them probably do not – but I am also sure that there are those who do).

  2. Forget religious sanction for a moment. Why is it that laws prevent polygamy? Our social conditioning makes us abhor polygamy, but if a man decides to get a second wife (or a woman, a second husband), with the permission of the first spouse, why should laws disallow it? I do agree with you that a one-sided law (allowed for men, but not for women) does not make sense today.

  3. India is definitely doing its bit to fight polygyny. (i) is being taken care of by the female infanticide that keeps happening, yes even in the cities, and by so called ‘educated’ folk. (ii) is being tackled by the 33% reservation for women in every sector.

    PS: It is interesting to note that this spell checker has no problem with ‘polygamy’ but redlines ‘polygyny’. It is undoubtedly feminist.

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