Polygamy: What’s culture got to do with it?

Date: February 15, 2010
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Recently, many debates have sprouted on polygamy. A few years ago, I stood uncertain of my position on the matter. That was until South African President Jacob Zuma got in front of the world and defended polygamy with culture.

His speeches triggered something in me, making me want to find the cultural link between polygamy and the African tradition that I am so proud of. In the end, I realised my firm standing position on polygamy.

When polygamy (a man married to more than one wife) became part of our culture, polyandry (woman married to more than one husband) was never considered. A practise that does not promote equality is a guaranteed no in my book… and I just have one question for polygamy defenders: what’s culture got to do with?

The greatest defenders of polygamy attribute the practise to culture. Some of or traditional African culture was lost at the hands of colonialism and religious segregation, destroying the pride of Africa and modernising some of its cultural practises. Today, some use the need to restore cultures to justify their actions.

Africanism has always taught us to be proud of who we are. When Jacob Zuma defended his polygamous marriages with cultural reasoning in front of the world at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, his speech became predictable and resembled an excuse many polygamous men give in Africa. Zuma said, “In South Africa we follow a policy that says you must respect the culture of others. Some think their culture is superior to others that’s a problem we have in the world.”

Surely, Africa has an identity problem in its hands and I understand the sudden urge to restore the broken walls of culture. However, that is not where our problem is, our problem is in the midst of cultural practices made lawful during a time that did not have all its citizens at heart, namely women.

In her speech ‘African Feminism’ taking a ‘cultural turn’, Sylvia Tamale said cultures lend and cultures borrow, they can be as oppressed, colonised, exploited, submerged and depreciated as they may be liberating and empowering. Polygamy does not give any empowerment to women.

The reasons many women in polygamous marriages give for their decision to enter polygamous unions links to a sense of obligation, a need to satisfy religious and cultural duties. I still need to hear a good reason from women who support polygamy other than, “there aint enough men in world for all the African women.”

When polygamy became a part of our society, men ruled and wanted their sexual desires satisfied. He wanted to have a male son who could take over his household when he died, he wanted to show that he has power and wealth – so he married all the wives he could to fulfil his dream.

There are many reasons why Africans practised polygamy but here are the common reasons given through the years:
– A man’s wealth is measured by the number of wives and children he has
– The more wives a man has, the more political alliances he makes.
– Agriculturally is easier to have a big family to cultivate the land
– Women were safer in a large household
– It gives men sexual gratification
– Polygamy is a child spacer, it allows a woman time to rest before trying to bear another son for her husband.
– It ensures that most young girls are married off or assured of a husband if their husbands die (widow inheritance).

I cannot help but ask: how does all this reasoning relate to the modern African age? Does the modern African man still face all the challenges given above? Does he still want many wives who can give him a son to take over his household or kingdom (in a world that elections are now held) and women can be rulers too?

Do you African men still want many children in this world filled with orphans and abandoned children? Do you, my African sisters still think that polygamy is a good birth control method? Do many polygamous African sisters still think that you are not good enough to get a husband all to yourself without sharing?

The reasoning that there are more women then men no longer makes sense. Perhaps then, men were dying in the army and women were just too many. However, today men are no longer the only sex serving in the military. The death rate of men in the army has dropped significantly from the time of King Shaka’s era to when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. So do not worry yourself sisi, there are enough man for the entire African sisters out there.

Even though I agree with having pride in our African culture, seen in light of the dominant western culture, this culture cannot be reason enough to continue this practice. The fear that traditional African culture will die is not sufficient to warrant acceptance of a tradition, like polygamy, which is outdated and harmful to women.

When I ask if polyandry will ever be part of polygamy many people stare at me in awe, as if I have asked a question that is off boundary. So again I ask of polygamy; what’s culture got to do with it? Instead of concentrating on ways to fulfil our sexual desires with many wives and trying to have many children so that our ego can get a boost, let’s get into the true African culture. This is a culture of respect, giving and sharing for the good of all African people without segregating its citizen because of race, sex, nationality or age.

Emsie Erastus in an intern working with the Gender and Media Diversity Centre. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh news on every day news.



11 thoughts on “Polygamy: What’s culture got to do with it?”

RPCV Zach Pool says:

Sawuboni Nkhosi,
I am a former Peace Corps Volunteer to Swaziland. I like the very reasoned article that you have written.

I saw this practice in your sister country, Swaziland, where I taught science and math.

And this model was even held up as a revered example by King Mswati who was rumored to take a new maiden if he so wanted at the Reed Dance (where the young virgins dance semi-naked for the King). Now, what young hot-blooded man would be able to resist that (even a king!)

So it is very much embedded in the way of life but its time to change might be soon. King Mswati says that he will be the last sovereign king and will transition to a republic with an elected president. Maybe when this happens he will also bring in change where the example at the top isn’t to get the most wives but to be the best example to one wife!

Panda says:

I have read this article over and over again and every time I read it, I can not help but agree with the wisdom written here. A truly beautiful opinion story!

Christel Breedt says:

I’m going to set the cat amongst the pigeons… Why not abolish polygamy and replace it with polyamory instead? Let them keep their culture, but let it be known that women will from now on have the same rights as any African man – including the right to marry as many spouses as she wishes to.

I M King says:

well-written and flawless in its reasoning.

Ben says:

Polygamy is about sustaining our cultural beliefs, rituals and practices, it has nothing to do with how modern african people think or reason or any of the purposes stated above but its about bringing back our customs that are being undermined by modern south africans. People like President Jacob Zuma and King Mswati the third are playing a key role in preserving it. Please remember that culture has nothing to do with equality(feminism),in culture women must bow down to their men so if ur Nguni u have every right to practice the custom.

Mohamed Suleiman says:

Nothing wrong with this practice my uncles and cousins have more than one wife and they are all one big happy family. If someone doesn’t like it let them not do it. This is still widely practiced in African and Arab societies and if you really look into it you don’t see any problems. But don’t go reading western narratives and western media sources. I mean speak to women and children in these households and no one really has a problem with it. Though I will admit we can learn some things from the west (like cleanliness and management and other things…) We don’t have to assume everything from the west is best.

Bernie says:

This article was very helpful for my research. I’m doing my MA in Gender and Women studies and had to write on this topic which helped a lot. The opinion piece is well written and the reasoning is excellent. We need more opinions pieces like this.

Phindile says:

Hi if they it’s traditions then they a crazy iam sorry .did you know that know women I forced to be in this polygamy if a women seys no she is forced or I husband will do with or without her blessings.stop this traditions because it abusing women.stop it or let us women have two husband.

Simphiwe says:

Hi well it’s a free country if one decides to be married in polygamy then it’s their choice , what would you rather have, more divorces and broken families or big families ? I still think polygamy is a good practice if not forced .

Justice says:

I agree with the heading, I am a bit neutral on this one, if the people who enter into a polygamous marriage do this willingly then who are we to question their decision. From a diversity tolerance point of view I think the important parties in this relationship are the involved people, because believe me you can be in a monogamous marriage and be in an abusive relationship. Why do we want to dictate to people how they should manage their relationships. What if just what if the man who is in a polygamous marriage is the sweetest of the men you could find and treats his wives the way they want to be treated and are happy to know who is involved with their husband and she is okay with that. Many women will like to claim that they are in a monogamous relationship, the question is are they really in a monogamous relationship because they do not know anyone else involved with their partner legally or illegally.

I think there is a lot of discussions to happen and the people who consciously decide to engage in a polygamy should be given the respect they deserve especially in South Africa because our constitution does not prohibit this.

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