Religion and Human Rights (31): Polygamy, Right or Rights Violation?

In the U.S., 9 states – including Utah, the center of Mormonism – make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute polygamous families. Polygamy is only legal in North Africa and most of the Muslim world. Does it make sense to promote the right to same-sex, interracial and interreligious marriage, and at the same time oppose polygamy? (By the way, polygamy usually means polygyny: one husband, multiple wives – the opposite, polyandry, is extremely rare).

Marriage is a recognized human right, but does the word “marriage”, as it is used in human rights language, also cover polygamous marriage? From the texts of human rights treaties and declarations, it’s not even clear that it covers same-sex marriage – although it undoubtedly covers interracial and interreligious marriage. The word “marriage” isn’t clearly defined in the texts. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration merely states the following:

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Polygamy or same-sex marriage aren’t specifically mentioned as being forms of marriage that are included in the right to marry, but neither is it the case that sexual orientation or the numbers of partners are stipulated as unwarranted limitations to the right to marry. So the phrasing as it stands neither includes nor excludes polygamy or same-sex marriage as a right. Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights isn’t much clearer.

However, the case for same-sex or interracial marriage can be based on other articles, such as the non-discrimination provisions. Article 2 of the International Covenant states:

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned but it is accepted that the list given here is a list of examples and not exhaustive. “Without distinction of any kind” is clear enough. Article 3 states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.

And Article 26:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

It’s not clear whether polygamists can invoke the same non-discrimination provisions. Perhaps the right to privacy can help them. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

However, apart from the question whether polygamy can be defended or not on the basis of existing human rights law, there are some good reasons why perhaps there shouldn’t be a right to polygamous marriage, even if it can be established that there is such a right. Wives may be pressured into polygamous marriages or prohibited from exiting them; they may suffer inequality and oppression in their marriage; and young girls may be forced to marry. The same risks exist of course in normal monogamous marriage, but are perhaps more important in polygamous marriage.

Moreover, polygamous marriage poses certain risks that are non-existent in normal marriage: excess boys in polygamous communities are often ostracized and condemned to a life of poverty and homelessness; and there’s a risk that marriage as an institution and as a general right may suffer when polygamy becomes widespread:

Polygamy is bad social policy for exactly the reason gay marriage is good social policy: everyone should have the opportunity to marry. Broad access to marriage is important not only for individual wellbeing but for social stability. And, to oversimplify only a little, when one man gets two wives, some other man gets no wife. There’s no better path to inequality, social unrest, and authoritarian social structures than polygamy. (source)

And yet, if it’s the case that

  • polygamy remains a fringe custom
  • polygamists are generally exercising their free choice and informed consent
  • no children are forced to marry or are sexually abused
  • and excess boys are not ostracized

then why would anyone oppose polygamy? Monogamous marriage isn’t illegal because some wives are beaten or because there are some cases of monogamous child marriage. One could oppose polygamy for religious reasons, but those aren’t sufficient in liberal democracies. Polygamy can only be problematic when it’s a practice that regularly and intrinsically leads to rights violations, as it does when child brides are common, when wives are commonly forced into marriage or when widespread polygamy makes it very difficult for men to find brides and marry.

Another thing to consider is gender equality. Even if polygamy is rare enough not to deny men a reasonable chance of marriage, and even if all polygamous wives are adults who freely consent to their marriage and who have equal standing within their marriages, then it’s still the case that the practice itself can signal gender inequality and hence perpetuate it. The reason is that polygyny, by its very nature, signals that men have more rights than women: a man can take several wives, but not vice versa. A legal right to polygamy would of course also entail a right to polyandry, but it’s unlikely that the risks to gender equality created by polygyny would be offset by many cases of polyandry. The more likely result is that polygyny fosters preexisting misogynistic prejudice because polygyny will always be more common that polyandry.

So, in the end a lot depends on how often polygamy results in rights violations. Is polygamy more like child marriage, which by definition is a rights violation (it involves pedophilia, the denial of education, health problems resulting from pregnancy at an early age etc.)? Or is it more like monogamous or same-sex marriage, which may produce rights violations such as domestic violence, but not intrinsically so? If some practice by definition violates rights, it should obviously be prohibited. If the practice only does so by accident and exceptionally, then it should in general be protected, especially when the practice itself is a human right. I claim that there is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy, as long as it’s not set up in such a way that it violates rights – as long as in most cases the wives consent (in an informed way), children are left alone, boys aren’t ostracized, and the practice isn’t so widespread that men can’t marry or that women feel they are second class citizens.

In this respect, polygamy is similar to hate speech. In the case of hate speech we are also dealing with a presumptive right, but one that can be abrogated when its exercise becomes too widespread with negative consequences for the rights of others. When a small black minority for instance is overwhelmed by hate speech, to such an extent that black people can’t go outside for fear of constant insult, then their right to freedom of movement should trump the speech rights of the haters.

For a more pessimistic view on polygamy, go here.


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