A brief history of… Polygamy


Aa a proud Zulu, South African president JacobZuma has long stood firmly by his right to have multiple wives (three, currently) and a large brood of children (20) by different mothers. But in the past couple of weeks the 67-year-old has been forced to issue a public apology following revelations he fathered a child out of wedlock – less than a month after tying the knot with Tobeka Madiba, 36 in a Zulu ceremony. Headlines at home such as “The Shame of a Nation” shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock to Zuma, however – among traditionalists in South Africa, polygamy isn’t a sin but having a child out of wedlock certainly is. Zuma has so far shown no inclination to take a fourth wife – the mother of his new baby daughter.

The Australian, No Internet Text
His lifestyle isn’t so extraordinary when you consider that polygamy is recognised under civil law in at least 48 countries, including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Iran, and many political leaders in the Middle East and Africa have four wives (the maximum number prescribed in Islam).
Indonesia allows a man to take a second wife if his first one is disabled or unable to bear children – or if she agrees through the courts.
But herein lies the basic moral fault-line with polygamy: it’s always been based on a double standard.
In the Hebrew Bible and the Koran, polygamy is viewed as a man’s right, while a woman having more than one husband (polyandry) is seen as adultery.
Several prominent men in the Old Testament had multiple wives – Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon – and in 2 Samuel 12:8 God, speaking through the “prophet Nathan, proclaimed that if David’s wives and concubines were not enough, He would give David more.
The Mormon church, which began as a movement devoted to restoring the message of the Old Testament, was an early adopter of polygamy. The TV show Big Love centres on a polygamist Mormon managing the conflicts, jealousy and financial strain that come with having three families.
Keysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, insisted in 2008 that recognising polygamy would help protect the rights of women. He responded with thunderous silence, however, to the notion of women being able to take multiple husbands.

Incest and Influence
Bruce Elder; 12/09; Review, No Internet Text
Adam Kuper; Harvard University Press,
Subtitled The Private Life of Bourgeois England, this carefully researched and fascinating book by Adam Kuper, an anthropologist and member of the British Academy, is a unique window into the unusual sexual morality of Victorian and Edwardian England. When Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgewood he was not only marrying his first cousin but Emma’s brother had married Darwin’s sister and the vicar who officiated at the wedding was a first cousin to both Charles and Emma. That arrangement was quite typical.
During the 150 years leading up to World War I, about 20 per cent of all bourgeois marriages in England took place between members of extended family circles.
Gives a whole new meaning to “keeping it in the family”, doesn’t it?
At the same time, as if to show how little was understood about basic genetics, there was a long-held prohibition on marriage between in-laws. If a woman died in childbirth and her widower then married his wife’s sister, it was seen as incest.
More importantly — and this really does give an insight into our current attitudes to sexual morality — “Until the early nineteenth century, marriage law in England was in the hands of the church … By the law of England, ‘fornication, adultery, incest and bigamy were ecclesiastical offences, and the lay courts had nothing to say about them’.”
Kuper’s central argument is that by looking at the literature of the time (he cites Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters as writers who saw marriage between cousins as commonplace) and studying the evolution of English legal codes regarding marriage, we can understand how the emergent bourgeoisie mimicked some aspects of aristocratic moral behaviour.
You only have to look at King Henry VIII’s tangled marital arrangements to see incest and unorthodox marriages were commonplace among royalty.
Kuper’s conclusion is that closely knit families who intermarried, such as the Darwins and Wedgewoods, did much to ensure the power and influence of England’s new upper middle class.