My cultural intake the past couple of weeks has provided me with a strong dose of polygamy. Courtesy of Netflix, I am about to finish season two of Big Love, the HBO drama about a forward-thinking polygamist family in Utah. On the literary side of the house, I just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which recounts the story of two Afghan women who find themselves married to the same brutal man.
Hosseini’s novel is relentlessly critical of the violent sexism that passes for culture, tradition and faith in much of Afghanistan. Yet polygamy itself is never a target of that criticism. In fact, the great solace in the life of Hosseini’s protagonists, Laila and Maryam, is the close friendship they share in spite (or because) of the suffering inflicted on both women by their husband Rasheed. Nor does Hosseini suggest that Rasheed’s brutality has anything to do with polygamy. He is equally brutally toward Maryam for several years before his marriage to Laila. One almost gets the sense that sexism is what ruins polygamy, which might otherwise be a dignified lifestyle. Briefly, the novel does introduce us to the multiple wives of Maryam’s wealthy father Jalil, all three of whom seem quite content.
Big Love premiered in 2006, before the publication of Hosseini’s novel in 2007. It also seems to suggest that polygamy wouldn’t be such a bad thing if practiced by modern, self-conscious adults. The show focuses constantly on the profound contrast between the loving (although imperfect) family of the protagonists and the brutal, demented behavior of the polygamous cults who live on isolated compounds. As a result of family ties, the protagonists Bill, Barb, Nicky and Margene cannot escape the influence of the compound.
Although generous and loving, Bill is often consumed by business affairs to the point where he cannot give his wives the attention they need. Instead, their friendship with each other emerges as the saving grace of the polygamous lifestyle. Whereas Maryam and Laila seems to enjoy an impossibly perfect relationship, Barb, Nicky and Margene often squabble as a result of their petty jealousies, insecurities, and thirst for recognition. Yet their conflicts never seems any worse than what all of us have probably seen in our own families.
Although you won’t see me protesting on behalf of polygamy anytime soon, there are some interesting policy questions here. Implicitly or explicitly, the Taliban’s brutality toward women often serves as a justification for our military intervention in Afghanistan. Both Democrats and Republicans have celebrated the new freedom of women in Afghanistan.
Should we be embarrassed then, by the persistence of polygamy? Or can we celebrate our enlightened approach to gender issues while tolerating plural marriage in the name of cultural diversity? If we can tolerate it in Afghanistan, why is it unacceptable here in the United States?
My personal suspicion is that it is simply impossible to separate sexism from polygamy. Or to put it slightly differently, I seriously doubt whether a husband and a wife can truly be equals if there is another wife in the equation (or another husband, for that matter). Yet I won’t take a more definitive position since I haven’t studied polygamy as it is actually practiced. Moreover, can there be a fair test of polygamy if it is only studied in the profoundly sexist regions of the world where it is currently practiced?
If our efforts to promote women’s education in Afghanistan turn out to be a success, we may soon find ourselves confronted with doctors, lawyers and professors who eloquently assert that they are glad to be one of many wives and wouldn’t have it any other way.
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