Is Polygamy a women's rights issue?

2012-04-24 14:52

The commentary surrounding President Zuma's sixth marriage has mainly revolved around the taxpayer perimeter where people are concerned about the funding of what has been described as a lush affair. This is a valid concern in itself but I am more concerned with what this means for women’s rights. Is it an issue at all and does the practice of polygamy have a depreciating currency for women in terms of the depth of their rights?

Polygamy, as with most marriage practices is a patriarchal institution. Rights are generally thought to be inalienable and as such are thought to be of universal relevance. This universalization of women’s rights is in itself problematic as it then to regard some rights and nullifies others. This means that women who choose to be part of a polygamous union are thought to be victims of a supposed institution of formalised oppression and coercion by its nature. By labelling women as victims of patriarchal dominance, their innate ability to be agents of choice is side lined. Of course, there are, at times, abuses of this institution where the accumulation of women is viewed as an entitlement and where their space for decisional agency dwindles without their sanction.

The idea of choice is further complicated by the fact that choosing in the most meaningful sense means an unparalleled belief in the rightness or appropriateness of an action along with the exhaustive search for alternatives. Humans rarely choose in such a manner. The spectrum of choice ranges from forms of coercion to choices, which legitimise the institution or action as ‘correct’. The fact that women choose polygamy does not clearly give an idea of where on this spectrum the decision is made and further whether this is an interval for the emergence of a ‘rights issue’.

By labelling polygamy as a rights issue there is an implicit assumption about the credibility of choices women make as well as assumptions about the sort of so-called ‘universal’ rights and experiences women everywhere are meant to share. If a woman does not feel her rights to be impaired by partaking in a polygamous union, surely the rights question is then made void. Of course, as with any marriage, there are instances where women may feel their rights to be threatened and in such cases, the union may call for an evaluation of the ‘rights question’.

Women are agents of choice and these choices may not always be under a ‘women’s rights umbrella’ where a universal conception of rights is espoused. Not all women’s rights are of a universal currency and women’s power of agency means these rights are malleable for each woman and each circumstance. No group of women may speak on the basis of universality without taking into account the individual experiences of the ‘othered’ sex.

Polygamy is not always a women’s rights issue so long as it is not demeaning act of existence for that specific woman. Whether women endorse the patriarchal institution of marriage in general, and polygamous marriages, in particular, is up to them. The relevance of rights violations cannot be left to a universalised benchmark of rights but its legitimacy or rejection must be derived from individual women.

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