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.

Gender Discrimination (30): The Politics of the Female Body

Exploitation can be beneficial to the exploited, human rights violations can be self-inflicted, and people can internalize stereotypes about them and behave accordingly.

Some examples. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B doesn’t have the means or the strength to find another seller. The sale of bread makes B better off, because without bread he would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s condition. A exploits B, yet B is better off and can decide to accept his exploitation.

Examples of self-inflicted human rights violations are school drop-outs, the undeserving poor, contestants in privacy invading reality shows etc. – to the extent that these people’s actions are really voluntary and based on informed consent, they impose rights violations on themselves.

Stereotype threat means that the threat of stereotypes about your capacity to succeed at something negatively affects your capacity: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task.

These three phenomena converge in the lives of many women in present-day western societies. Few of them are ruthlessly oppressed, few of their rights are grossly violated, and sexist stereotyping has become unfashionable. And yet, it’s arguably the case that many western women show signs of having internalized patriarchal power relations. It wouldn’t be correct to depict these women as unconscious victims who can’t choose for themselves – that would be just as bad as the sexist stereotypes of the past – but there are signs that some of them have been taught to participate in their own oppression and subordination.

How else could we explain the beauty ideal, women modifying their bodies, starving themselves, re-sculpturing their silhouettes and conforming in all possible ways to male expectations and prejudices? It’s like they have internalized the male gaze (in the sense given to that word by Jacques Lacan) and look at themselves the way many men do.

I don’t claim that this internalization of stereotypes is beneficial to women in the sense that some forms of exploitation are beneficial to the exploited, although in some cases that may be true – some women may reap some advantages from conforming to stereotypes. Neither do I claim that the internalization of stereotypes is self-inflicted in the sense of a voluntary act. In most cases we’re probably dealing with some form of indoctrination, and it’s fair to say that women and their bodies are still highly regulated, in a way that’s different from but not unlike the way it is in more traditional societies (for example in some Muslim societies). However, we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that some women do in fact voluntarily accept stereotypes. Again, the view that women are passive victims of indoctrination isn’t much better than or different from the view that women conform to more traditional stereotypes.

More on body politics is here. More on gender discrimination is here. And more on the Muslim headscarf is here.

Gender Discrimination (28): Occupational Sex Segregation as One Cause of the Gender Pay Gap

It’s common knowledge that women tend to earn less that men, even in countries that pride themselves on their respect for gender equality.

One of the causes of this gap is occupational sex segregation, meaning that women and men tend to work in very different occupations. Coincidentally or not, “men’s jobs” are generally better paid than “women’s jobs”.

Now, “segregation” in this context may be too strong a term, since there are no longer a lot of legal restrictions on the employment of women, at least not in the U.S. Women aren’t segregated into very specific occupations, at least not by law. Cultural pressures may still exist, however. Women often feel obliged to choose occupations that mix well with family responsibilities, and those occupations tend to be less profitable. Such a sense of obligation is not a sign of gender equality.

It’s also not clear to what extent women – voluntarily or not – choose jobs that are less well paid, and to what extent employers decide that jobs chosen by women merit less pay.

And finally, let’s not forget that there’s a gender pay gap even within professions. Occupational sex segregation therefore can’t explain the whole pay gap. Hence, the gender pay gap may be an indication of different types of gender discrimination:

  • forcing women into jobs that are less well paid
  • paying less for the types of jobs that women tend to choose
  • paying women less than men within the same types of jobs
  • failing to give women and girls the same opportunities to enter some types of jobs (e.g. because of unequal education, child marriage etc.)

What is Democracy? (50): The I-Did-It-My-Way Syndrome

In discussions about the promotion of democracy in those parts of the world where it hasn’t been (firmly) established yet, the skeptical side of the argument usually advances either or both of the following positions:

  • Democracy is a political form typical of the West and undesirable or impossible elsewhere.
  • Democracy is a political concept which is defined in different ways according to the culture in which it is applied. When promoting democratic government in certain places, we are in fact promoting standard Western democracy when we should in fact be promoting something quite different.

The first position often includes references to cultural or religious preconditions for democracy which are claimed to be absent in certain countries (notably Muslim countries, which supposedly have a hard time accepting the separation of state and religion, the rule of law, gender equality and other elements of democracy). Or it includes arguments about economic preconditions which are absent (democracy being OK for the wealthy West, but not for countries which have other, more urgent economic concerns). And, finally, the size of countries, or their ethnic mix, is said to make democracy very difficult to achieve, or to make it an element which can undermine national harmony and stability. Democracy is viewed as something which reinforces communal or tribal antagonism because the different political parties tend to be formed along ethnic or tribal dividing lines. As a consequence, these parties see it as their role to defend the communal interest and nothing else, and once they are in power they tend to do so by discriminating against other communities. In such countries, democracy degenerates into an ethnic census.

The second position doesn’t reject the possibility or desirability of democracy in certain countries, but claims that the western definition of democracy can’t and shouldn’t be imposed outside of the West without taking into account the local, cultural, historical and social circumstances. There should be different models of democracy for different parts of the world. The western model is not a panacea and is not adapted to all circumstances.

Needless to say that this second position tends to collapse into the first one: if democracy is a very open concept that can include very different procedures, rules and institutions, then it can also exclude elements of democracy which we normally see as essential parts of democracy. An “African democracy” or “Asian democracy” or whatever, may turn out to be not very democratic. Indeed, such concepts are often mere smokescreens used by dictators weary of rejecting democracy altogether.

However, there is some element of truth in both positions. Democracy is undoubtedly tied to certain preconditions, and is impossible without those. And, in certain specific circumstances, such as a war or a national emergency, democracy – or full democracy – may be – temporarily – undesirable. Moreover, countries have to be able to follow their own path and to organize their societies according to their own views and traditions, and not according to those of the West. The Western model isn’t by definition the only desirable one, or the best one. It is not up to the West to decide what is and what is not politically acceptable in countries with entirely different traditions. Democracy can take different forms. Even among Western countries, there are vast differences between the types of democracy that are applied.

It’s wrong to copy the specifically Western view of democracy “à la lettre” in the rest of the world. Within certain limits, we have to take local and cultural aspects into consideration and we have to be flexible where we can. But there are limits. A democracy can’t be just anything. Otherwise we would be defending nihilism. If some elements are missing – such as freedom of speech, association and assembly, regular, fair and free elections, the rule of law etc. – then we can hardly speak of democracy.