Polygamy in Libya -- and beyond

As the country's interim leader makes plural marriage easier, a look at the practice in reality versus theory

Published November 6, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)

Mustafa Abdel Jalil  (Reuters)
Mustafa Abdel Jalil (Reuters)

A collective face-palm could be heard throughout the Western world when Libya's interim leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil announced that he was overturning Gadhafi-era restrictions on polygamy. However, from a certain liberal American perspective, the idea of plural marriage doesn't seem so outrageous.

As Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, argued in a New York Times Op-Ed this summer, "Regardless of whether it is a gay or plural relationship, the struggle and the issue remains the same: the right to live your life according to your own values and faith." Indeed, the ongoing U.S. battle over marriage equality has highlighted the injustice that can arise when the state sanctifies certain unions and forbids others – all on religious and moral grounds. And while the Warren Jeffs trial brought attention to the dangers of cloistered polygamist societies in a major way, there are also normalizing examples at hand, albeit on TV via "Big Love." In such a context, it can seem a basic issue of the freedom to define our families for ourselves.

But it's also true that polygamy doesn't happen in a cultural vacuum -- it's different in reality than it is in theory.

It's critical to understand the specific context in this case. Contrary to many reports, it isn't that polygamy was previously illegal in Libya – it's just that it came with serious restrictions. As Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Hofstra University who has written about legal issues surrounding plural marriage, tells me, "The fact that the [former] polygamy rules in Libya, which require consent of the first wife given in front of a judge and the showing by the man of an affirmative need for an additional wife, has resulted in relatively low rates of polygamy is telling," she says. "Wives clearly do not support polygamy in large numbers and must have some power to refuse consent." Returning to unrestricted polygamy "would deprive women of any control over their husbands' acquisition of multiple wives and reduce their intra-family power, as well their power in society," Grossman says.

Moving from the specific to the general, it's true that copious research has demonstrated the negative social impacts associated with polygamy (which almost always manifests as polygyny, a man taking multiple wives, and not the other way around). Many of these findings were summarized in a report that anthropologist Joseph Henrich presented in testimony during a Supreme Court case challenging Canada's ban on polygamy. The chief problem introduced by the practice, at least when it is widely adopted, is that it creates "a pool of low-status men" whose potential wives go to "high status, wealthy men," he argues. An unmarried male underclass is associated with greater crime – including rape and kidnapping of women -- and generally leads men "to seek to exercise more control over the choices of women," from what they wear to whom they date.

Polygyny also tends to lead to women -- nay, girls -- marrying younger and younger; at the same time, the age gap between husbands and wives expands dramatically. It's also associated with lesser paternal investment in children, as the father's resources are spread thin. An additional upshot of that is that it "may reduce national wealth (GDP) per capita both because of the manner in which male efforts are shifted to obtaining more wives and because of the increase in female fertility," Henrich writes. He says that "monogamy seems to redirect male motivations in ways that generate lower crime rates, greater GDP per capita, and better outcomes for children" and goes so far as to argue that monogamous marriage "may have created the conditions for the emergence of democracy and political equality." (I spoke with Henrich at length about this for my series on monogamy.)

As a philosophical thought exercise, there is a totally reasonable debate to be had over whether these many issues can be addressed independently, instead of by criminalizing the practice of polygamy. The question of how to strike a balance between preventing harm and defending personal freedom is a tricky one. In this case, though, it's neither tricky nor an issue of balance: Abdul-Jalil has moved to overturn a law that guarded against harm while also defending freedom of choice.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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