I grew up in a Muslim country. While I am not a Muslim myself, I have first-hand experience of what it was like to live in a society that allows polygamy. Here are some of my personal experiences and observations on why Utah’s move to legalize polygamy is terrifying to me.
As an immigrant, I will proudly tell you that America is the best country on Earth, bar none. It’s by far the most civilized and most accepting, and its people have the most potential to live a good life. America is a far cry from the problematic country of Malaysia where I grew up. So imagine my horror when I saw news of how the Utah Senate had voted unanimously to decriminalize polygamy.
When I read this news, I couldn’t help but think about all the reasons why I wanted to leave Malaysia to begin with. America is the best country for a woman to live in. Unlike Malaysia (where polygamy is allowed if you’re from the Muslim faith under the Shariah law), polygamy is outlawed in America.
In one of the largest studies on polygamy, The University of British Columbia completed a research paper that found the reason societies as a whole have evolved away from polygamy to monogamy is because polygamy contriutes a host of negatives to society that aren’t present in a system of monogamous marriage. I am going to quote the study (in bullet points) and expand with examples I’ve encountered from a society that allows for polygamy. You can access the research paper on that study here.
How the Men Suffer
“The scarcity of marriageable women in polygamous cultures increases competition among men for the remaining unmarried women.”
“Monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygamy is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems.”
“By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment.”
When you have a system where one male can marry multiple females, it will leave a huge block of men without any prospect of marriage because they will now have difficulty in finding romantic partners. It’s obvious to many how polygamy is exploitative to women, but we should never forget that polygamy also harms men.
Ask the average Malaysian their thoughts on which community commits more crime, and they will tell you how they’re more likely to notice a higher crime rate in the Malay Muslim community which has a polygamist marriage system compared to the monogamous marriage system of the Chinese community in Malaysia. This is confirmed by the study, which found “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud...caused primarily by pools of unmarried men” in polygamous societies.
Polygamy harms men just as much as the women.
With no prospect of a girlfriend, a wife, or children, men tend to get violent and/or cease caring about much beyond hedonism. These men are the product (dare I say victims?) of a polygamist system.
How the Children Suffer
“Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict...These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households and increased direct ‘blood relatedness’ in monogamous family households.”
One story I heard in Malaysia was about a man who married two wives and had kids with both. One day, he and his second wife died in an accident. His first wife inherited the estate, including the legal care of the children from his other wife. She had always secretly hated these kids because they were a reminder of her husband’s other wife. Unlike a stepmother, she had never agreed nor expected to take on the care of the other wife’s children because the assumption was that both families would lead separate lives. (Never the two shall meet.)
Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare.
But now that she had the legal parental authority, the children suffered because she was cruel to them. Under a monogamous union, these children would have been left to the care of their own biological family members, like the grandparents or aunts and uncles from the other wife’s side of the family. But under polygamy, the other spouse assumes all legal rights to the whole estate, including the children.
How the Women Suffer
“Allocations of household resources to another wife’s children mean fewer resources for one’s own children. Since co-wives are generally unrelated to each other and to each other’s offspring, genetic relatedness does not provide the same degree of prophylaxis against intra-household violence as in monogamous households.”
“Monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized...By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality."
Another anecdote I heard in Malaysia was about a woman who had been married to a man for a long time. She helped him to establish their company and run his business. They both worked hard and the business was successful. The husband rarely came home because their company required him to go on long haul business trips. They grew older together. One day he died.
Allocations of household resources to another wife’s children mean fewer resources for one’s own children.
Then, to her shock, she found out that he had secretly married another woman and had another family with multiple children from that marriage. All of her hard work in building their business and the marital assets she had helped to create were now to be redistributed evenly with the other wife who had a legal claim to her husband’s wealth. The working wife and her children were now left with substantially less than what she thought was fair because the other wife played no part in the creation of her marital assets.
Marital Economic Absurdity
And this brings up another question. What happens if a three-way polygamous marriage were to break up with one of the wives filing for divorce? Does that wife have the right to take 33.3% of the total marital assets even if she wasn’t married to the other wife? If it were a monogamous marriage, each partner would receive half of all marital assets, split 50-50.
A polygamous third spouse, on the other hand, will only have claim to one third (33.3%) of all assets. Keep in mind too how this asset allocation ratio dwindles as more and more spouses are added to the equation. Imagine too if the first wife was also the main wealth generator, earning the majority of the household income. Would it be fair to the first wife to have her marital assets liquidated and redistributed to the divorcing wife she wasn’t married to?
It’s known how polygamy has always been exploited by those who were less than stellar in their principles – like older men with economic resources taking advantage of undereducated girls in poverty or gold-diggers looking to marrying wealthy men for their money without the responsibility of being his full-time spouse. Polygamy has a terrible track record. The women end up suffering. The children end up suffering. The men end up suffering. It offers no proper benefits to any rational person.