Polygyny/ Polygamy


"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one." (Qur'aan, [4]:3)

hijabi56Muslim career women in Britain are choosing to become involved in polygamous relationships because of a lack of suitable men.

Some of them even choosing to become second or third wives to married men, according to the Islamic Sharia Council.

The charity, based in Britain, gives legal guidance to Muslims and has said it is receiving a high number of queries from women struggling to find suitable partners.

Many of the women have also said they would prefer to hold down high-profile jobs rather than look after their husbands.

Taking more than one wife is illegal in the UK but men marry again in a nikah religious ceremony, allowing them to take up to four wives.

Mizan Raja, 35, who organises Muslim marriages around the world, told the Sunday Times, that he has had hundreds of calls in the past six months from women asking about becoming second wives.

Mr Raja said:

'The demand for these relationships is led by the women, not the men. In one generation women have become educated, entrepreneurial and professional.
'The Muslim community is struggling with this, how do you cope with women who wear trousers?'

He said that many Muslim men just wanted a 'homemaker' and to come home to a clean house and a plate of food on the table.

He added the men didn't want the 'headache' of being in a relationship with a professional woman.

It is thought the Muslim women are also actively seeking out married men because they do not want the hassle of having to cook for their husbands after a hard day at work and are quite happy to have part-time relationships.

Source: Daily Mail


Islaam regulated matrimony in that men are permitted to maphotos-of-Cloud-Break-Columbus-Indiana-picturesrry up to four wives provided they treat them fairly and equally. The man must first be financially capable to take another wife, provide different residences and be able to divide his time equally amongst them.

In the western society many men who are married to only one wife usually have extramarital affairs. Thus a survey was published in the USA Today (April 4, 1988; Section D) which asked 4700 mistresses, what would they like their status to be (mistress or second wife). They said,

"I prefer being a second wife rather than the other woman".

The reasons for this are that they didn’t have any legal rights, nor did they have the financial equality of the legally married wives and it appeared that these men were using them.

Islaam is clearly against extra or premarital affairs (fornication) as this leads to corruption in the society and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Don’t people feel bad when they have children out of wedlock? These children have the right to grow up knowing that they have parents who are responsible enough to have planned to bring them into the world. No one would like to be told that they were an accident.

As for those against polygyny, statistics show that because of wars there are more women in the world than there are men. Other reasons are, most married men engage in extramarital affairs and there is an increase in homosexuality amongst men, thus causing an excess amount of women to men. The Islamic solution of polygyny is the best solution to the seemingly difficult problems that plague our society in our man to woman relationships.


sunrise23Muslims are often accused of being promiscuous because polygamy is legal in Islam, even though Islam did not actually introduce polygamy. Unrestricted polygamy was practiced in most human societies throughout the world in every age. Islam regulated polygamy by limiting the number of wives and establishing responsibility in its practice.

Monogamy of the West has been inherited from Greece and Rome, where men were restricted by law to one wife but were free to have as many mistresses among the majority slave population as they wished. In the West today, most married men have extramarital relations with mistresses, girlfriends and prostitutes. Consequently the Western claim to monogamy is false.

Monogamy is illogical. If a man wishes to have a second wife whom he takes care of and whose children carry his name and he provides for them, he is considered a criminal, bigamist, who may be sentenced to years in jail. However, if he has numerous mistresses and illegitimate children his relation is considered legal.

There is normally a surplus of women in most of our societies. The surplus is a result of men dying in wars, violent crimes and women outliving men. The upsurge in homosexuality further increases the problem. If systems do not cater to the need of surplus women it will result in corruption in society. For example, Germany after World War II, when suggestions to legalize polygamy were rejected by the Church. This resulted in the legalization of prostitution. German prostitutes are considered as workers like any other profession. They receive health benefits and pay taxes like any other citizen. Furthermore, the rate of marriage has been steadily declining as each succeeding generation finds the institution of marriage more and more irrelevant.

Western anthropologists argue that polygamy is a genetic trait by which the strongest genes of the generation are passed on. Example, the lion king, the strongest of the pack, monopolizes the females thereby insuring that the next generation of lion cubs will be his offspring.

Institutional polygamy prevents the spread of diseases like Herpes and AIDS. Such venereal diseases spread in promiscuous societies where extra-marital affairs abound.

Polygamy protects the interests of women and children in society. Men, in Western society make the laws; they prefer to keep polygamy illegal because it absolves them of responsibility. Legalized polygamy would require them to spend on their additional wives and their offspring. Monogamy allows them to enjoy extra-marital affairs without economic consequence.

Only a minority will practice polygamy in Muslim societies. In spite of polygamy being legal in Muslim countries, only 10-15% of Muslims in these countries practice polygamy. Although the majority of men would like to have more than one wife, they cannot afford the expense of maintaining more than one family. Even those who are financially capable of looking after additional families are often reluctant due to the psychological burdens of handling more than one wife. The family problems and marital disputes are multiplied in plural marriages.

leafwaterConditions have been added for polygamy in many Muslim countries. For example, in Egypt, the permission of the first wife must first be obtained. This and similar conditions are a result of colonial domination. Such a condition, in fact, negates the permission given by God in the Qur'aan.

Others have accepted polygamy on condition that it won't be performed out of "lust". That is, if the wife is ill, or unable to bear children, or unable to fulfill the husband's sexual needs, etc., taking a second wife is acceptable. Otherwise it becomes "lust" on the husband's part and is consequently not acceptable. The reality is that "lust" was involved in the marriage of the first wife. Why is it acceptable in the case of the first and not the second? As has already been pointed out, men are polygamous by nature. To try to curb it by such conditions will only lead to corruption in society.

Feminists may object to this male right by insisting that women should also be able to practice polygamy. However, a woman marrying four husbands would only increase the problem of surplus women. Furthermore, no child would accept his or her mother identifying the father by the "iny miny miney mo" method. The question which remains is, “If God is good and wishes good for His creatures, why did he legislate something which would be harmful to most women?” Divine legislation looks at the society as a whole seeking to maximize benefit. If a certain legislation benefits the majority of the society and causes some emotional harm to a minority, the general welfare of society is given precedence.

An Ancient Practice

book45Polygamy is a very ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible did not condemn polygamy. To the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic writings frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. King Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. (Kings 11:3) Also, king David is said to have had many wives and concubines. (Samuel 5:13) The Old Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a man among his sons from different wives. (Deut. 22:7) The only restriction on polygamy is a ban on taking a wife's sister as a rival wife. (Lev. 18:18) The Talmud advises a maximum of four wives. (Swidler, op. cit., pp. 144-148.)

European Jews continued to practice polygamy until the sixteenth century. Oriental Jews regularly practiced polygamy until they arrived in Israel where it is forbidden under civil law. However, under religious law which overrides civil law in such cases, it is permissible. (Hazleton, op. cit., pp 44-45.)

What about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene Hillman in his insightful book, Polygamy reconsidered,

"Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy." (Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 140.)

Moreover, Jesus has not spoken against polygamy though it was practiced by the Jews of his society. Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). He cited St. Augustine,

"Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife."(Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 17.)

African churches and African Christians often remind their European brothers that the Church's ban on polygamy is a cultural tradition and not an authentic Christian injunction.

Polygamy Limited in the Qur'aan

irfan-ul-quran_16The Qur'aan, too, allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions, "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one."(Qur'aan, [4]:3)

The Qur'aan, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly. It should not be understood that the Qur'aan is exhorting the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal. In other words, the Qur'aan has "tolerated" or "allowed" polygamy, and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible? The answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for polygamy.

As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times could not ignore these compelling obligations.

Women Outnumber

Ipretty-autumn-leavesn most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there are, at least, eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females. (Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches and New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 88-93.) What should a society do towards such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, some might suggest celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which still happens in some societies in the world today!). Others may think the only outlet is that the society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, etc. For other societies, like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted and socially respected institution. The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women's degradation. For example, many young African brides, whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry a married man who has already proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely. (Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 92-97.)

A survey of over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Only 23 percent expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another wife. Seventy-six percent of the women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed polygamy positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other. (Philip L. Kilbride, Plural Marriage For Our Times and Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1994) pp. 108-109.)

Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution that some Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya declared that,

"Although monogamy may be ideal for the expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider that in certain cultures polygyny is socially acceptable and that the belief that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable." (The Weekly Review, Aug. 1, 1987.)

After a careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari of the Anglican Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced, is more Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are concerned. (Kilbride, op. cit., p. 126.) I personally know of some highly educated African wives who, despite having lived in the West for many years, do not have any objections against polygamy. One of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her husband to get a second wife to help her in raising the kids.

The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes, who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European settlers, without offering any other alternative, condemned this Indian polygamy as 'uncivilised'. (John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A history of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988) p. 87.)

It is interesting to note that in an international youth conference held in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The initial reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final recommendations. (Sabiq, op. cit., p. 191)

In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university of California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed that men should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student even stated that a polyganous marriage would fulfil her emotional and physical needs while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union. (Lang, op. cit., p. 172.) In fact, this same argument is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women who still practice polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children since the wives help each other care for the children. (Kilbride, op. cit., pp. 72-73.)

Wars, Widows and Children

dawn17After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group. (Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 263-264.) Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers of the victorious Allied Armies exploited these women's vulnerability. Many young girls and widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and bread. Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought. A 10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts from other children wished from all his heart for an 'Englishman' for his mother so that she need not go hungry any longer. (Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 257-258.) We have to ask our own conscience at this point: What is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as in the native Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the 'civilised' Allies approach? In other words, what is more dignifying to a woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology based on the culture of the Roman Empire?

The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged to accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully recognized this fact,

"It is quite conceivable that these genocidal techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical..) could produce so drastic an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom and law, an overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favour of polygamy. In such a situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce weighty reasons and biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage." (Hillman, op. cit., p. 12.)

The Answer for many Social Ills

moondarknightTo the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of the social ills of modern societies. The communal obligations that the Qur'aan mentions in association with the permission of polygamy are more visible at present in some Western societies than in Africa. For example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender crisis in the black community. One out of every twenty young black males may die before reaching the age of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is the leading cause of death. (Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual Politics (San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1989) p. 25.) Besides, many young black males are unemployed, in jail, or on dope. (Ibid., p. 26.) As a result, one in four black women, at age 40, has never married, as compared with one in ten white women. (Kilbride, op. cit., p. 94.) Moreover, many young black females become single mothers before the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers. The end result of these tragic circumstances is that an increasing number of black women are engaged in what is called 'man-sharing'. (Ibid., p. 95.) That is, many of these hapless single black women are involved in affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the fact that other women are 'sharing' their husbands with them.

Some observers of the crisis of man-sharing in the African American community strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to the shortage of black males until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at large are undertaken. (Ibid.) By consensual polygamy they mean a polygamy that is sanctioned by the community and to which all the parties involved have agreed, as opposed to the usually secret man-sharing which is detrimental both to the wife and to the community in general. The problem of man-sharing in the African American community was the topic of a panel discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993. (Ibid., pp. 95-99.) Some of the speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for the crisis. They also suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law, particularly in a society that tolerates prostitution and mistresses. The comment of one woman from the audience that African Americans needed to learn from Africa where polygamy was responsibly practiced elicited enthusiastic applause.

Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage, in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society. According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children,

"Children would be better served if family augmentation, rather than only separation and dissolution, were seen as options."

Moreover, he suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men and the African Americans who are involved in man-sharing. (Ibid., p. 118.)

Muslim Women Have a Choice

It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides, the wife has the right to stipulate that her husband must not marry any other woman as a second wife. (Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 187-188.)

The Bible, on the other hand, sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry her husband's brother, even if he is already married,regardless of her consent.(See the "Plight of Widows" section: Genesis 38:8-10)

The rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world

It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice of polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes is not huge. One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.

Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact,

"Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community." (Abdul Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari'ah, (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1994) p. 76.)

It is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as Muslim, countries in the world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second wife, even with the free consent of the first wife, is a violation of the law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife, without her knowledge or consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned! What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward deception and punish honesty? It is one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our modern 'civilised' world.


turqoiuseflowerglowingIt has been misunderstood for years that Islaam does not give equal rights to men and women, and that it considers women only as subjects of comfort for males. This opinion has been delivered time and time again by renowned women activists, although their basis of arguments are only alleged facts. Their main argument is against the permission given for polygamy in Islaam.

Islaam's approach to polygamy is most balanced and rational and is based on the moral, psychological and physiological demands of men and women. It should be remembered that taking more than one wife is only permissible, not ordained and binding by the Qur'aan - as some 'progressive' activist would like to believe.

The Qur'anic verse that allows polygamy should be read in the context it was revealed. The verse says, {And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two, three and four, but if you fear that you may not do justice to them, then (marry) only one.} (4: 3).

This verse was revealed after the battle of Uhud. In that battle, many Muslim men died and as such a great social problem for the protection of widows and orphans arose, necessitating institutionalized polygamy for a convenient solution of the problem.

Some of the eminent Western scholars who actually studied Islaam, quite blatantly criticized the Western and other writers for venting their opinion as facts. In her book 'The Life and Teachings of Muhammed', Dr. Annie Besant, the renowned English leader of Theosophical Movement, says,

"There is pretended monogamy in the West, but in reality, there is polygamy without responsibility; the mistress is cast off when the man is weary of her ... the first lover has no responsibility for her future, and she is a hundred times worst off then the sheltered wife in a polygamous home. When we see thousands of miserable women who crowd the streets of Western towns during the night, we must surely feel that it does not lie in the Western mouth to reproach Islaam for polygamy. It is better for woman, happier for woman, more respectable for woman to live in polygamy, united to one man only, with a legitimate child in her arms and surrounded with respect, than to be seduced and then cast out into the streets perhaps with illegitimate child outside the rule of law, uncared, unsheltered, to become victim to any passer-by, night after night, rendered incapable of motherhood despised by all."

Annie Besant continues,

"You can find others stating that the religion of Islaam is evil because it sanctions a limited polygamy. But you do not hear the criticism that monogamy, with a blended mass of prostitution was a hypocrisy and more degrading than a limited polygamy.... it must be remembered that the law of Islaam in relation to women was until lately, when parts of it was imitated initiated in England, the most just law, as far as women are concerned, to be found in the world.

Dealing with property, ...rights of succession,... cases of divorce, it was far beyond the law of the West, in the respect which was paid to the rights of women. These things are forgotten while people are hypnotized by the words monogamy and polygamy and do not look at what lies behind it in the West - the frightful degradation of women..."


lightofdawnblueskyA study of polygamy in Russia suggests we have a lot to learn about how to beat the recession.

A study of polygamy in Russia might not seem an obvious place to look for insights into how the financial crisis might play out in suburban Kent or rural Yorkshire. But Caroline Humphrey, Sigrid Rausing professor of collaborative anthropology at Cambridge University, says central Asia and Russia have much to teach us.

“In the 1990s, Russia and central Asia experienced huge economic change: what a bank was, how your career was going, what you could expect from life, everything changed overnight,”

she explains.

“And of course it had a huge impact on people’s lives, from family life to politics, and polygamy is part of that whole scene. So far, we haven’t had such dramatic change in the west, but you never know.”

Humphrey specialises in the anthropology of communities on the edges of the former Soviet Union, and has spent much of her career studying the Buyrat people who live north of the Mongolian border in Siberia. Humphrey says that anthropologists slowly build a deep knowledge and understanding of a place and culture, but nevertheless, her discovery that there is a polygamy lobby was a surprise.

“Friends of mine in Siberia told me that their friends were lobbying parliament to legalise polygamy,”

she says.

“I always knew that there were men who like the idea of polygamy, but what I found fascinating was that women were also in support.”

So is the recession going to turn the good burghers of Tunbridge Wells into polygamists? It’s unlikely. But it remains the case that the reasons why men – and, even more interestingly, women – are advocating polygamy in Russia and Mongolia are as much about economics as they are about sex. The critical issue is demography. The Russian population is falling by 3% a year – and there are 9 million fewer men than women. Nationalists, such as the eccentric leader of the Liberal Democratic party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claim that introducing polygamy will provide husbands for “10 million lonely women” and fill Mother Russia’s cradles.

Elsewhere, in the former Islamic regions of Russia, men argue that polygamous marriage is traditional and will encourage men to take greater responsibility – thereby alleviating poverty and improving “moral” education.

Improbably, for both groups, this is polygamy as a solution to contemporary social ills – and, according to Humphrey, is appearing outside Islamic regions. In rural areas the “man shortage”, exacerbated by war, alcoholism and mass economic migration, is even more serious. But when it comes to polygamy, rural women have a quite different agenda from their nationalist male counterparts.

“A lot of women live on what were collective farms, which are often deep in the forest and miles away from the nearest town,”

Humphrey says.

“You live very close to nature, and life can be very hard – your heating is entirely through log stoves, there’s no running water and inside sanitation is rare. If you are lucky enough to keep animals, you must care for and butcher them yourself. So if you are looking after children as well, life can be near impossible for a woman on her own.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Humphrey’s investigations have uncovered women who believe that, “half a good man is better than none at all”.

“There are still some men around – they might be running things, with a job as an official, for example, or they might be doing an ordinary labouring job, but either way, there aren’t very many of them,”

she says.

“Women say that the legalisation of polygamy would be a godsend: it would give them rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits.”

Legalising polygamy has been repeatedly proposed and discussed in the Russian Duma, or parliament – and always turned down. For the urbanites of Moscow and St Petersburg it is a step too far.

In Mongolia, too, the legalisation of polygamous marriage is anathema. Yet in Ulan Bator, the thrusting capital city, well-educated women are combining traditional and modern to create something that looks suspiciously like a form of polygamy.

Surprisingly, it starts with the dowry. Eschewing the traditional gifts (horses, cushions, clothes), successful Mongolian families are increasingly giving their daughters a good education in place of a dowry. In contrast, their brothers often have to leave school early to either manage the herds or run the family business.

“In Mongolian culture, the bride’s family are the senior family; and a bride should be clever. And they had 70 years of communism, so the idea that women should be well-educated is not new,”

Humphrey explains.

“Since Mongolia, in common with Russia, also has a problem with alcoholism, there is an imbalance between urban educated women and the number of men these educated women deem to be suitable husband-material.”

The solution is simple: they just don’t get married. Instead, they take what is known as a “secret lover” – usually a well-educated man who just happens to be married to someone else. Any children resulting from the union are brought up by their mother and the maternal family.

“It is completely accepted. These women are among the elite of Mongolian society – they might be a member of parliament or a director of a company and they are tremendously admired,”

Humphrey says.

“They would be horrified by the idea of polygamous marriage because they don’t want to risk their independence.”

So what does this mean for marital relations in Russia and central Asia? Humphrey says it’s unlikely that polygamous marriage will ever be legalised in Russia – but perhaps that doesn’t matter.

“An insufficiency of men, educated women who want to realise themselves, rural women who want to protect themselves, all these things are going to give rise to arrangements like polygyny,”

says Humphrey,

“whether it’s called that or not.”

Source: Published in the Guardian, Oct 09.