I’ve been thinking about polygamy a lot lately. This is not because it’s something I’m considering as a life style choice. Rather, because it has become a frequent topic of conversation of late. In Senegal, men are legally allowed up to marry up to four women at any given time. To be honest, my relationship with polygamy is limited. It rarely crosses my mind unless I happen upon an opportunity to make politically incorrect jokes about Utah. I also recall experiencing a vague, but fairly disinterested, wave of nausea/disgust upon learning about the debacle that goes by the name of “Sister Wives.” Then again, I think that could just as easily be attributed to a general feeling of abhorrence directed toward the simultaneous glamorization and exploitation of the obscure, which seems to have found a permanent and ever-expanding home in reality television.
For the first time, I am forced to consider polygamy in a new context. Here, having more than one wife is not an anomalous situation that will garner tabloid fame and airtime on TLC-it is an acceptable reality. The newfound seriousness with which I began to ponder polygamy has also given rise to a host of questions about the nature of monogamy, feminism, fidelity, marriage and other related concepts-all of which I am fairly uncomfortable with. The exploration of the aforementioned topics and their different manifestations here and in parts of Europe and the US has led me into some murky waters…
It all began a few days ago, during the Tabaski festival (one of the most important religious celebrations for the Baye Fall). As the day was drawing to a close, Serigne Babacar came and sat down with us and the conversation, as usual, took a turn towards the philosophical. At some point, someone started asking about the “tools” necessary to achieve spiritual fulfillment. One thing that stood out for me in Serigne’s response was what he said about marriage, which he considers a necessary part of the process. Going even further, he mentioned that within a marriage, men and women are equal partners, and until men have a full appreciation and understanding of the female perspective, enlightenment is impossible…
This discussion struck a chord with me for a few reasons. First, because that was not the response I had anticipated. Secondly, because I cannot understand how equality can exist in a marriage that would also allow the husband to incorporate up to three additional wives. And thirdly, because I noted that there were no men present to hear this insight…
The discussion continued into the next day…One of the women, an Italian, began joking with the men about what we had been talking about the night before. She mentioned that having more than one wife seemed to be incongruous with Serigne’s interpretation of marriage. A light-hearted banter ensued. The men jokingly maintained that since a man cannot take a second wife without the consent of the first, and must treat each wife equally, polygamy was acceptable. Although we were laughing about it, one cannot ignore the fact that according to a census conducted in 2005, nearly 47% of marriages in Senegal are polygamous. And even if a woman would prefer to be in a monogamous marriage, it is not necessarily something they are willing to fight for- at least not yet. In a place where access to education and poverty are daily battles, changing a centuries old tradition, deeply imbedded in the religious culture, is not a priority.
“In reality,” one of the European women argued, “it’s no different than all the European men with mistresses that they take care of for years and years. It might even be better, because at least in this case, the first wife knows about it.” Although she wasn’t entirely serious, she had a point-albeit a tragic one. Have we reached a point where infidelity is so expected that the optimal situation is one where the wife is cognizant of it? Even worse, when a recent study in the US showed that women have “caught up” to men in the realm of infidelity, a female reporter for the Wall Street Journal crowed, “Women can now use their power in ways to which men have long been accustomed.”
Is this what equality looks like today?
The celebratory tone was a fairly common one in the world of feminist blogs. Jezebel’s take on it was that, “Ladies is Pimps Too.” Despite the fact that I read and enjoy many of these sites, this jaded take on relationships is chilling. Still, it is not surprising. When I think about the past year and the dramas that played out within my group of friends (my own included) in New York, the expectation of dishonesty was always alarmingly present.
All of this has left me wondering who really has it better? Is it the woman who is afforded the courtesy of approving her husband’s choice in a second wife or the woman who responds to infidelity in kind? For me, being someone with trust issues and walls that can seem indestructible, this whole discussion leaves me with a feeling of emptiness…
At the end of the day there aren’t any winners here.
10/29/2012 07:53:06 am
6/11/2013 04:19:48 pm
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I'll be spending the year teaching...and learning in the rural village of Ndem