Very highly-defined gender roles are the norm in much of the world. Women tend to be stuck at home; education and privileges for women are undervalued. Of course it would be nice to change all of that, but first lets look at some reasons why that might be the case.
You are in a subsistence farming community, or some other community which involves harsh life conditions. Children for you are not some luxury that you have in order to feel fulfilled in life, as some abstract (albeit biologically engendered) goal. Children are a necessity. They do work for you around the house when they are young, and they provide for you when you are old. If you don’t have children, you don’t have support for the many things that need to be done when you are either busy or falling apart from age.
On top of that, life is uncertain. How many of your children will survive to adulthood? Who knows? You can’t pin your hopes on any one. You can’t afford to invest all of your resources into a small family. You have to have a large family so that someone might live long enough to support you.
So a large family is not some “love of life” or “love of children.” It is your welfare program in a harsh environment. But someone has to have these kids, and biologically, it just so happens that this someone has to be female. So women are going to be making lots of babies. This restricts their time and level of physical exertion, and so their options in life.
This is all on top of the the social conservatism which is necessary to support such a community, but that is a different post. My point is this: we Americans can talk about sexual equality because we are well off. We have the luxury to have intellectual jobs that don’t demand heavy physical labor, to have institutions that support maternity (or paternity) leave and pay, and for people to be provided for when they reach retirement (through social programs and/or through their own savings). We can invest our resources in small families since there is a fair assessment that our children will make it to adulthood. Or we can even just decide that we don’t want kids, without there being any shame or hardship involved.
If we want to increase gender equality in the world, there are many things that must be done. However, there is no chance for women to have equal rights until a society has the resources to support it.
Medical forms were finally submitted last Monday. French exam was passed yesterday. Now I just sit back and wait for a month or three, most likely to find out that I was stupid and missed something that I will have to send back. The absolute earliest I will hear anything would be April, and possible as late as June if I’m still on for this nomination (or later if I get pushed onto another assignment for any reason). But for the meantime, I’m taking a couple days off of French and easing up on studying a bit.
So now for the polygamy part of the title. Polygamy is part of significant portions of African society. But why? Let’s start from the standpoint of set, traditional gender roles. Men do their thing, whatever that is, and women do their thing, which is general to take care of the house, take care of children, and probably pick up the slack of the men in the fields and such. I’m not saying to agree with this starting point – but you can’t just go in and change it overnight. (Let’s say that you tried. You’ve convinced some women to throw off their shackles and be progressive. What have you won for them? Society still doesn’t have much in the way of jobs for them, and the men who would not be as progressive aren’t going to marry them. You’ve only made them social pariahs. Change must come from within the community itself for it to stick – and there are African women’s movements, to be sure, just not as the focus of this blog post.)
So starting from these gender roles, the point of polygamy is not just so that men can have as many women as they want. The point is that these women will be taken care of properly. The point of marriage in such a society is not romance – that’s a luxury, and often an overly-idealized notion of marriage. Marriage in such a society is for making babies and having a family arrangement to take care of them, including inheritance rights and an order to who does what in the community. Your husband/wife would not be your best friend and confidant – that’s generally what your family and community are for.
In that light, a man who has the means can take care of more women and more children. These women and children will be better off by being part of a rich man’s family than by being the only wife and children of a poor man. Also, more wives means that the wives can split house chores, easing their workload. The arrangement provides a form of life insurance as well: if a husband dies, his closest male relative has to take care of his wives and children.
So if we do start from the standpoint of strict gender roles and are pragmatic (which most of the world has to be), polygamy makes sense. Which is not to say that I condone the overall social arrangement, but matters are seldom as simple as “this practice is all-good” or “this practice is all-bad.”