Polygamy in Georgia

From Atlanta's own Channel 2 news, a story that a school assignment is promoting Islamic polygamy:
Medlin showed Regan the assignment brought home by his 13-year-old daughter. The assignment consisted of a letter from Ahlima, a 20-year-old Muslim woman, and touts the advantage of a wearing a Burqa and finds the way western women dress to be "horribly immodest," according to the assignment. 
The assignment shows Ahlima saying she doesn't mind if her future husband takes more wives. "I understand that some Westerners condemn our practice of polygamy, but I also know they are wrong," the assignment said... 
Another page of the assignment lists the seven conditions for women's dress in Islam, including:
-It cannot resemble the clothing of nonbelieving women
-It must protect women from the lustful gaze of men 
It also states, "Islam liberated woman over 1,400 years ago. Is it better to dress according to man or God?”
My favorite part of this story is the school's explanation for the assignment:  'to help students put the school dress code into context.'

Once I met a playwright from Al Kut who claimed he was going to seek asylum in America -- not from the Ba'athists, but from his two wives.  Apparently they were fine when they were alone together, but as soon as he walked in the door the jealousy and sniping began.

That said, it strikes me that there is a feminist argument for (as well as the more familiar feminist argument against) polygamy.  Naturally a woman wants to marry a man who has good bloodlines and who can provide for her and her children during the times when she is unable to do so.  Under monogamy, most women must settle for a man who is only average or below; but the richest men could more readily afford ten children than a poor man can afford one.  Since wealth is often correlated with self-control, hard work, and intelligence, one could argue that these men would also be better quality mates.

Why should a woman have to select an unmarried loser, just to preserve a level playing field for the men who are seeking wives?

Elise said a while ago -- I can't recall the exact context -- that it should matter to men who proclaim that they love the women in their lives that the women prefer monogamy.  Fair enough; but what if they didn't?  What if the woman, like Ahlima, happened to prefer to marry the best man even if he had another wife?  Polygamy at least preserves what marriage is for:  it binds families into new kinship bonds, and provides for the generations.  (Actually, one might put it the other way, and say that monogamy preserves what marriage is for, since polygamy may be the older and historically more-common form.)

Is it just Islam?  Apparently not, because people were just as upset when the Mormons proclaimed that polygamy was acceptable.  The Jews practiced it in the old days, and Christ used a polygamous bridegroom as the explanatory model for his church.  It can't be said to be un-Christian or irreligious, then; it's just, so to speak, un-American.

Or so it has been.  Is there some fundamental reason to prefer monogamy, or is it just what we're used to seeing?


raven said...

There are strong societal reasons for monogamy. Lets say that the top 10% of men can each afford four wives. And the second 10 % can afford two wives each. The bottom 80% can afford one wife-but there are only wives available for half these men, as the upper 20% of males have sequestered over half the supply of females. This is not a recipe for a stable society. In fact, it begs for warfare so there is something for a bunch of angry young males to do.

Grim said...

This is an argument I've heard before. Note, though, that this is an explicitly patriarchal argument: we do it this way because it's better for men that it be easy to find a wife even if they are a loser. Since it happens to be the case that American women also seem to prefer it, there's not really an issue with unfairness here; but that isn't necessary, it's a contingent fact.

Eric said...

Raven seems to assume that 100% of everybody gets married.

That is quite false, so the analogy fails.

Plus, there are more women than men in the USA. Except in places like China and India where male children are wanted way more than females. And no wars have broken out yet.

The reason, as ever, is cultural.

BillT said...

About once a class, an older Iraqi pilot would tout the benefits of polygamy to me. I'd then draw the Chinese ideogram for "catastrophe" on the board, then ask, "You have bought a separate house for each of your wives, right?"

The answer was always a puzzled, "Yes, why?"

Then I'd point to the ideogram. "This is the Chinese symbol for 'catastrophe' -- three women under one roof."

It always got a rueful laugh and a lot of head-nodding, and no one ever raised the subject twice in the same class.

Grim said...

Dr. An used to tell that same story. (An is the name of the character, in this case, with only one woman under one roof; it means something like "tranquility.")

That said, I'm not sure that legendary character actually exists in the Chinese language. I've never been able to find it in a dictionary. However, three women without a roof is jian, which has several negative meanings associated with sex: adultery, rape, or general fornication. Putting a roof over all that would quite possibly cause something other than tranquility!

Grim said...

Chinese does have some interesting meta-commentary going on about women, though: so maybe I just haven't located the right character yet.

raven said...

Except in societies that have abortion preference, the ratio of men to women is roughly equal. A few percent difference. And of course ,not every man wants to get married-but most do, or at least want to have access to females.
I recall reading about the expulsion of young men from some sect in the US, so the elders could have first choice at the young females. And the stories from the middle east about "marriage" for a day to relieve frustration among the men who could not find wives.
It seems to me the societies where polygamy is practiced tend to authoritarian, male dominated and repressive-I suspect because it is necessary to keep the young MEN in line.
Just a guess, but I would feel quite confident there is an elevated incidence of violence in countries that practice polygamy or have a hugely reduced female to male ratio, compared to counties that practice monogamy , serial or otherwise.

Grim said...

Note, Raven, that your argument here is just as good an argument for compelling women to marry as it is for banning them from choosing to marry into a polygamous marriage. If every man who takes a second wife is creating a dangerous unmarried man, then every woman who chooses not to marry is also creating a dangerous unmarried man.

If our social policy goal with marriage is to ensure that dangerous unmarried men are minimized, marriage ought to be compulsory -- right? After all, the unmarried man is just as frustrated if he can't find a woman to choose to marry him as he is if there is no woman available to marry him.

I'm not sure that 'avoiding violence' is the reason for marriage anyway. Although St. Paul does say "It is better to marry than to burn," I think he didn't mean that it would be our cities that would be burning!

pond said...

It seems clear that Raven has the stronger argument here. Addressing Grim's last post, it seems very unlikely that Raven's argument is just as good an argument to support compelling women to marry. There is little chance that a significant number of women in most any society would need to be compelled to marry, if only for the reasons that (a) women and men are attracted each other -- and that attraction naturally leads to marriage in societies which favor marriage as a vehicle for male/female relations, and (b) women, moreover, are historically naturally attracted to such relationships and unions given their relative powerlessness as compared to males (re: wealth, limited opportunities to earn or produce wealth; political power, etc.). Such historical limitations on women are of course all the more pronounced since it is the women who bear and care for children, and which are an additional burden on their acquiring wealth, power, status (or even surviving). Marriage is historically the ladder out of relative wholesale powerlessness for women, albeit not necessarily a ladder to full empowerment by any stretch of the imagination. Women don't need to be compelled to marry in most societies; it is the "natural" object of their desires, rather, and (as a rule) a wholly rational choice for such a creature .

Grim said...

That's fine, Pond, but there are several reasons in the original post offered for why it might be even more rational to prefer a polygamous marriage to a wealthy and successful man, than a monogamous marriage to a poor man of neither wealth nor status. If rationality is the reason to marry, why not marry well?

In any case, the analogy here seems strong to me: if Raven is right to say that the reason to prefer monogamy is to reduce the number of unmarried men, then why is it better to say 'You shall marry either 0 or 1 man' than to say 'You shall marry precisely 1 man.'? It seems the purpose is better served by the second statement than the first, and both are limits on women's freedom to choose how to structure their lives.

pond said...

@ Grim. While you say "That's fine, Pond." it is not clear that you have in fact taken the point at all. If there is no danger of droves of women avoiding marriage (thus leaving droves of males mate-less), there is no reason to compel marriage on the mate-less male metric. Mate-less males are not an issue (by hypothesis) unless they reach the "drove" level. That is why your 2d paragraph is inapposite. One reason, anyway. As a general rule, I would posit that the fewer restrictions necessary the better as far as governing (and liberty) goes, so that's why choice is "better", all other things being substantially equal.

Grim said...


Marriage rates have actually fallen to the lowest rates on record both in the UK and in the US. However, I was taking your more important point to be that the biological urge will cause men and women to pair up in some sense (marrying only in cultures where, as you put it, "that attraction naturally leads to marriage in societies which favor marriage as a vehicle[.]" We may simply no longer live in such a society. People are still mating up, but they aren't marrying as much.

The question is, what about those women who may prefer marriage -- but polygamous marriage? You cite a liberty interest, but that's just what I'm asking after. We're restricting liberty on this point by asserting that polygamy is banned. If we're going to restrict their options to "not 2," why not to "not 0"?

Daniel, USMC said...

Howdy Grim,

I've known several polygamous households over the years that have all failed miserably. The biggest hurdles against it that I have seen are the losses that we, as a society, have re: governing customs and internal attitudes that probably made it work.
F. ex.: A clear familial heirarchy versus todays "we are all equal" mentality, inheritance customs, asf.

That said, I could care less how consenting adults come together in matrimony. If someone wants three husbands or three wives and they can pull it off without tapping into my tax dollars-- more power to them.

Grim said...

Howdy, Daniel,

I haven't actually known anyone who's tried it here in America. You may be right to say that our culture of individualism is a danger to polygamy, but I think it's also a danger to marriage generally. The worst thing that's happened to marriage is the idea that has taken root over the last few decades, whereby people think of it as a kind of business contract between two people. If that's your model for marriage, then why shouldn't one of those two parties lawfully dissolve the contract if they find it unsatisfying or come up with a better offer?

Marriage is really a pre-political kinship bond, which unites two bloodlines across generations. We misuse positive law when we use it to create legal excuses for oathbreaking.

raven said...

Today being a crating and shipping day, and light on work related thinking, my thoughts wandered to this conversation. I was contemplating the origins of polygamy.
Was it simply a matter of the strong men gaining access to more females?
Or a way of making up for the loss in war or hunting of available males?
Or perhaps the result of the distribution of captured female slaves, the captured men of combat age being put to the sword?
Your thoughts?

Cassandra said...

That said, it strikes me that there is a feminist argument for (as well as the more familiar feminist argument against) polygamy. Naturally a woman wants to marry a man who has good bloodlines and who can provide for her and her children during the times when she is unable to do so. Under monogamy, most women must settle for a man who is only average or below; but the richest men could more readily afford ten children than a poor man can afford one. Since wealth is often correlated with self-control, hard work, and intelligence, one could argue that these men would also be better quality mates.

Why should a woman have to select an unmarried loser, just to preserve a level playing field for the men who are seeking wives?

You know, I have read a lot of profoundly cynical and depressing things in the last 7 years, but that may take the cake.

Grim said...

I may not be being fair to the argument, then. I framed it in a way that is meant to be roughly an analogy to the pro-choice argument, which is focused on what the woman thinks is good for her. That is a cynical and depressing argument, so I can see how you'd draw that out. Still, I think it's possible to phrase the principle of the argument in non-cynical terms.

It's not cynical to say that a woman wants to find a good provider, or a father for her children who is of good stock and will endow them (in company with her) with the best chance of being strong, smart, and healthy. Those are good things for her to want for the family she intends to start.

Particularly in the poorer nations of the world, those seem like good reasons to choose one mate over another. We have a lot of luxury here, where even a poor man can probably provide the basics for his family if he will work. There are many parts of the world where that is not true, though: where selecting a poor man as a husband is to run a terrible risk with the lives of your children.

So, one might make a cynical version of the argument appropriate to the West; but I think there's a version of the argument that is very much less so.

Grim said...


I don't think there's a single answer to that question; polygamy appears to be the most widely practiced form of marriage in human history, across more societies and times than any other.

That suggests it doesn't have a single point of origin. With Islamic polygamy, though, we can at least point to a real point of origin with Muhammad, for whom it was an abolition of slave-trading and women-as-property concepts of the type you mention.

We think of Islamic marriage as being decidedly anti-woman, but in that time and place, it represented a significant advance of the female condition according to the available evidence. (And there's no reason that Islam has to be hostile to women; you might enjoy reading this article on the Islamic philosopher Averroes' views on women, which run strongly toward full equality. Averroes wrote in the 12th century, well in advance of Western feminism).

So that's one way it can arise: by religious restriction of strong-man practices such as you cite.

The Code of Hammurabi provides another way, which is that a woman who could not provide a child after a time provides for her husband to take a second wife (although the second wife was not to have the full rights of the first, and was essentially a slave). So that is another way: by law.

I suppose it could arise by conquest as well, but the two examples I can come up with offhand are both counterexamples. I can remember Biblical occasions when the Israelis conquer a people and take the surviving women as concubines or wives (as did the ancient Greeks), but polygamy didn't arise out of that -- it was, in both cases, already a well-established form.

Grim said...

By the way, if you're alarmed by the line of inquiry, remember when we went through underlying principles for the universal franchise. Some readers asked to have their blogs removed from the blogroll over that, because it was upsetting even to them even to ask the question; but as a community, we ended up endorsing the universal franchise, having understood it much better than when we started.

This is one of the proper functions of philosophy: to check the foundations. Sometimes they prove to be strong and stable, and you can then rely on them with greater confidence for knowing just how they are laid. Sometimes they aren't so strong and stable, and you might want to think about them again.

Anonymous said...

If memory is correct, one reason given (by an outsider) for the initial practice of polygamy by the Latter Day Saints was the disproportionate number of female converts as compared to males. Supposedly theological justifications were then created to explain why the Saints were encouraged to take multiple wives. Since the "blessing of polygamy" was later taken back by G-d, for that group it has become moot.

For a fascinating example of one individual case where polygamy seems to have been happy, I recommend Juanita Brooks autobiography, notably the chapter describing traveling with her father to visit his mothers. The book is entitled "Quicksand and Cactus."


Cassandra said...

It's not a case of being "alarmed by the line of inquiry", Grim. Insofar as I know, I don't think I expressed any objection to asking the question, but did raise several objections to some frankly objectionable arguments. But that's par for the course during a debate.

I don't think "what the woman thinks is good for her" is ever going to be a terribly compelling public policy argument. There are all sorts of things some individuals (not majorities) "think are good for them", including redistributing the income of other people and abolishing private property.

Too hard to make an argument in the comments box. I may post my arguments if I can finish painting the upstairs.

Cassandra said...

Two small points, though:

1. "What the woman thinks is good for her" isn't an accurate (or fair) summation of the pro choice argument. I'm reluctantly pro choice and I can guarantee it forms no part of my position.

I know many people who are deeply disturbed by abortion (most of whom, like me, believe it takes a human life) who are - nonetheless - reluctantly pro choice.

2. I don't understand how one can rationally evaluate whether polygamy (more accurately, polygyny because - surprise! - I don't see any discussion/support for polyandry here) is "good for women" without looking at the societies where it is accepted and the status, treatment, and rights of the women impacted by it.

Tell me: if polygamy is such a good deal, show me where women who have the same rights/freedoms as men are making the case for polygamy in any numbers? I must have missed that one :p

What rights do women typically enjoy in polygamous societies? We have numerous examples to look at. I question the value of abstract "what if" debates that ignore the way things work in the real world. In a hypothetical universe, perhaps wishes would be horses and all beggars would ride. Sadly, though, we don't live in that world.

People are currently free to shack up any which way they want. They don't need a license to do that. I don't see a compelling (much less convincing) argument why government should legitimize/subsidize such arrangements as they do with monogamous marriages.

Grim said...


1) You say that 'what someone thinks is good for them' is not a good standard. I think it surely can be, in cases where there are no competing rights at stake.

The difference between a "what someone thinks is good for her" argument in redistribution (and, indeed, in abortion) vice in marriage is just this: there is no competing right of another person to consider. You have a right to your property that is at least as strong as "her" right to redistribute your property could be; a child has a right to have its interests considered that is as strong as the mother's right to have her interests considered. (Indeed, what I find "depressing and cynical" is this very aspect of the pro-choice position. The cynical part is that it changes a human being into an entirely disposable entity; the depressing part is that this calculation is evidently chosen millions of times a year.)

In marriage, though, no one can claim a right to have you marry them. They may have a desire for it, but they have no moral claim on you that would, or could, obligate you. There is thus no reason you shouldn't be free to decide based on your own interests, which may include physical as well as emotional interests (as you prefer).

Now that right is reciprocal, so that no man can be obligated to marry you either. In case of polygamy, no couple can be required to accept you into their marriage. He has, or they have, every right to decide that without regard to your preference, however strong, to be married.

2) We aren't talking about polyandry because we started with the example of Islam in Georgia schools. I don't see any reason it isn't a roughly analogous argument, though; assuming consent from all parties, of course.

3) Your objection to historic models is, if I may say so, ill-founded. You will have just as hard a time finding monogamous countries in history or outside the West that 'were good deals' for women on the terms you ask after here. What rights have women typically enjoyed in any society beyond our own brief moment? Sometimes more, sometimes less; but never equality.

You could argue that monogamous societies got there first, so that perhaps there is come correlation between monogamy and equality; but I will say again that Averroes' arguments for equality -- coming out of the polygamous Islamic society of medieval Spain -- are at least as good as you will find in almost any monogamous society. That suggests there is no necessary correlation.

4) Re: government sanction: I agree with you here to a point. The reason marriage deserves social or legal protection is that it performs a necessary social good. I mean, of course, the generation and care of the next generation. That is a good for everyone, which we ought all to support -- as we do, for example, in extending taxpayer-paid benefits to the families of government employees. That allows those government employees who choose to do so to to have families, which benefits everyone by continuing civilization.

Polygamy does sometimes meet this criterion, in which case it might also deserve the protections of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Other forms of sexual arrangements that do not ought not to be allowed to create legal demands upon the rest of us.

Grim said...

I wish to acknowledge, by the way, your objection that I am not being fair to the pro-choice position; but I am not sure how to answer it, since I'm not sure how you frame your own version of the argument. I suppose that I am, in a sense, pro-choice as well -- I oppose abortion strongly on moral grounds, but I am not sure I trust the government enough to let them regulate it. I do think that there is one case in which abortion is morally acceptable (in the case when the mother would die otherwise, it is acceptable but tragic; in the case where the mother and child would both die otherwise, it is morally obligatory, as well as tragic).

The version of the argument made by some like President Obama, though, is that you shouldn't 'punish girls with a baby' because they need to go on to college, etc. That version is one that privileges the mother to the exclusion of the child (or the child's father -- though his choice to avoid abortion is best practiced by not impregnating a girl who has not consented to live and family with him).

Cassandra said...

There is a very clear competing interest wrt polygamy, and most especially with respect to the choice you posited (marrying a man with "better bloodlines" and lots of money ... perhaps... as opposed to marrying a "loser"): the interest of any children born to the marriage.

And I'm not talking about looking at "historical" polygamy but at polygamy as it is currently practiced, vs. monogamy as it is currently practiced.

Grim said...

That's a fair point, although the children in this case (unlike in the case of abortion) are notional rather than actual. It's not clear that a child who doesn't exist can have rights, or even interests, as such; but it's fair for the parties to a marriage to consider the hypothetical interests of the child, surely.

Cassandra said...

Children born into polygamous marriages are not children who don't exist. They are real, and society has an interest in protecting them.

Grim said...

Children born into polygamous marriages are children who exist, yes. Children hoped for by a person considering marriage do not yet exist. While I think it is highly praiseworthy to look out for their likely interests, they don't actually have any interests as yet -- it may prove that no children actually come from the marriage, after all.

That temporal distinction is also important, by the way, for your remarks regarding historical versus modern marriages. It may be that there is not now a kind of polygamy that is fully respectful of women; but 150 years ago, it might have also been said of monogamy. That wouldn't have been a good argument against monogamy at that time. What was needed, rather, were principles for reforming the institution -- not a discarding of the institution.

douglas said...

Hasn't the ease of divorce today allowed a kind of serial polygamy to flourish? There are many a man who have had several wives- just not all at the same time.

Grim said...

True enough.

Cassandra said...


There is a huge difference between serial monogamy (one man marrying multiple women, but one at a time) and an arrangement whereby one man has access to several women at the same time without violating his marriage contract.

How often have you heard of a serial monogamist with 55 children? Not often, because the math makes it extremely unlikely(though certainly possible, I suppose) :p

douglas said...

Apparently, there's no shortage of men who have had over twenty children with various women (no doubt many outside wedlock).

Indeed there are significant differences- not the least of which, in my mind, is at least the deferential appearance to the institution of monogamy. It's just an interesting sidebar. Sorry to sidetrack things.

Grim said...

Since we're talking about Biblical foundations in the other post, it's worth noting that what you are calling a 'deference to monogamy' is an actual violation of Jesus commands: see Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:2-12.

douglas said...

Sure, I think divorce and remarriage is an affront to God, but I also would rather have people doing that (thus preserving the idea of marriage at a societal level) than living together out of wedlock in seriality. Lesser of two evils.

Ymar Sakar said...

In Japan they consider romantic relationships to be mostly a private affair. In public, only holding hands and perhaps kissing is allowed by social mores.

It is precisely because Arabia never could command obedience from their males in public, that they had to resort to bringing the private world into the public world, with burqas and harsh punishment for unchaste behavior.

The West may eventually develop a workable polyamorous type of social development, especially if birth can be outsourced to a technological womb. But it will still look nothing like Islamic repression.