Women and Polygyny
There is no questioning the fact that women often are victims of polygyny. Sometimes, a woman may even effectuate the victimization of another woman. The case of biblical Sarah and Hagar is a good example. Under a belief that the birthing of a child under her roof would help her condition, barren Sarah offered her Egyptian servant to Abraham to impregnate. The Bible does not record any conversations seeking Hagar’s consent or interest in the matter. Sarah merely needed Hagar’s womb. Hagar would likely have been a teenager, and Abraham was about 85 years old. By today’s standards, this would likely be (statutory) rape. Nevertheless, men by patriarchy often used polygyny against women.
Besides, ancient civilizations thought of women as ontologically inferior to men. For instance, Moses permitted Israelite men to send their wives away for almost any reason:
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her, and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. – (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
While such a law contextually prevented men from pimping women in that society, it also gave much power to men over women. Of course, this was the text that Rabbi Hillel used to argue that men could divorce Jewish women for any and every reason.
Similarly, African men also typically multiply wives at will. Many African states consider polygyny a thing of prestige. As Gitari writes, “Whenever the society considers polygamy as a social ideal, culturally and traditionally, the polygamist enjoys superior prestige and as a result, well-to-do males will tend to acquire more than one wife” (7). Hence, there is a genuine sense in which women are used as trophies in some contexts. Likewise, Europeans do not fare any better in their treatment of women. For instance, women could not vote in many European states and the United States until the 20th century. In all these cases, we see patriarchy making life difficult for women.
However, we still must be cautious against hasty generalizations. While many western women today cannot imagine sharing their husbands with another woman, this is not always true for women in other cultures. Precisely because marriage in Africa is typically duty-oriented and unromantic and sex is primarily for procreation, some African women would gladly welcome a new wife into their marital homes. A new wife would relieve the first wife of sexual duties—something some wives may not enjoy—while also having help with house chores. Of course, a new wife also means fresh troubles, but some first wives deem domestic misunderstandings negligible compared to the benefits a new wife promises. In some ancient African contexts, first wives also wielded considerable power and often had businesses independent of their husbands.
Some European missionaries (see Part 1) wrongly judged African marriage norms and concluded that the women needed saving from polygyny. Their judgment is, however, not necessarily accurate. Catrien Notermans performed an anthropological study of Christian eastern Cameroon women in polygamous marriages. The women all belonged to denominations such as the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches whose official rulings yet forbid polygyny. They were members of denominations wanting to save them from polygyny. However, these women disagreed with their churches’ official rulings. Notermans writes that these “women successfully combine polygyny and Christianity. They cannot be seen as passive recipients of Christianity who have to be saved from polygyny, but as active innovators who creatively integrate Christianity into their married lives” (351). Unlike their white church leadership, these Cameroonian women “do not judge polygyny as a moral problem” (351); instead, they conclude that what could be problematic is “the way polygyny is performed in everyday life” (351). That is, there is a right way to function in polygynous contexts.
Notermans further observes that the Cameroonian women “engage in Christianity on terms that are largely their own: they consider Christianity to be useful in one’s relationship to others and in particular to those who take part in the same polygynous household” (351). That is, the African women used Christianity to improve polygyny.
What about Polyandry?
Polyandry is a type of polygamy where a woman is simultaneously married to more than one man. We have no biblical examples, but some Western theologians have used the text of Romans 7:1-3 to argue against polyandry:
Since I am speaking to those who know the law, brothers and sisters, don’t you know that the law rules over someone as long as he lives? For example, a married woman is legally bound to her husband while he lives. But if her husband dies, she is released from the law regarding the husband. So then, if she is married to another man while her husband is living, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law. Then, if she is married to another man, she is not an adulteress.
When we read closely, however, we observe that Paul is here talking about the Jewish law. He writes about how the Jewish law forbids a Jewish woman from having multiple husbands simultaneously. It is an illegitimate stretch to say that this passage forbids non-Jewish polyandry.
Polyandry is a relatively rare marriage form. It exists in South Asia and among the Irigwe people of Plateau, Nigeria. Polyandrous unions are not homogenous. Indeed, each of the studied polyandrous marriages differs from one another. Whereas we often believe polygyny to have started in an agricultural age among people with a surplus of land and conducive weather, humans seem to have devised polyandry in contexts where land was scarce. Interestingly, one of the unique things that polyandry studies have unearthed is the need to separate a woman’s sexual attribute from her reproductive attribute. These two distinct female attributes are often lumped together in monogamous and polygynous marriages, and a husband holds the right to them for as long as a marriage lasts.
Northern Nigeria’s kind of polyandry, also technically known as secondary marriage, seems to have been hugely influenced by the people’s distaste for divorce. Levine and Sangree observe:
Secondary marriage implies sequential marital rites and serial cohabitations, without the severance of prior unions or the cessation of the rights and duties associated with these prior unions. Thus a woman may cohabit with a first husband, marry a second and leave the first without abrogating her right to return to the first and have children by him at a later date. . . . Although the woman does not live with all her husbands at the same time, she is concurrently wed to all of them and these marriages last for life (400).
Now, this marital practice may understandably be repulsive to a westernized mind, but the Nigerian people solved a human problem the best way they knew how. Besides, perhaps polyandry is not any worse than the common European practice of divorce. Nevertheless, we have no biblical prohibition of polyandry—though we also do not have biblical cases of this marriage form.
Christian Men and Polygamy
I believe strongly that European missionaries to Africa should have merely sown the seed of Christian ethics into the cultures and let things work out naturally. They should have primarily instructed and encouraged the men in two areas: loving their wives as they love themselves, and doing unto their wives as they would want the wives to do unto them, and vice versa. Doing this would imply that men, over time and as God works on their hearts, would be slowly discouraged from taking additional wives without the consent of their (first) wives—unless the husbands would genuinely not mind their wives multiplying husbands without their consent. Of course, these things may take a few generations before society-wide fruit manifests, but this seems like a more meaningful and Christian missionary goal than the largely demonization project the missionaries embarked on in Africa.
Someone may yet ask, “can a monogamously married Christian man take on additional wives?” I think we must be aware of the context. The context may inflect our answer. In a primarily polygamous environment, for instance, where centuries of tradition have shaped both the men and women, the question may take a distinct form than in a monogamous culture. I am, however, convinced that, in all cases, a monogamously married Christian man ought not to multiply wives without the consent of the (first) wife. I cannot see how someone who truly loves their spouse would intentionally do anything that might hurt their marital partner. In other words, if a Christian wife really and freely consents to her husband’s taking of an additional wife, there would be nothing sinful or unchristian about it—and I think the reverse holds as well.
Gitari, David. “The Church and Polygamy.” Transformation, vol. 1, no. 1, 1984, pp. 3–10. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43052879. Accessed 4 Apr. 2021.
Levine, Nancy E., and Walter H. Sangree. “Conclusion: Asian and African Systems of Polyandry.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 1980, pp. 385–410. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41601145. Accessed 4 Apr. 2021.
Notermans, Catrien. “True Christianity without Dialogue: Women and the Polygyny Debate in Cameroon.” Anthropos, vol. 97, no. 2, 2002, pp. 341–353. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40466036. Accessed 4 Apr. 2021.