By Khaled Diab
If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?
Monday 13 May 2013
Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.
In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.
As you'd expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.
According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.
Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.
The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.
In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.
That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.
So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.
Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.
Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.
This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.
The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?
Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.
While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.
Polygamy in most Westerners' minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.
Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.
But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People's rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society's sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?
Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.
While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he'd probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?
Moving away from the world's various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.
As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.