Polygamy, much like any other type of marriage, is a choice.

Today, “marriage equality” is synonymous with “same-sex marriage.” Though we are progressing politically on the issue of same-sex marriage, one area of the much larger topic of marriage equality, we are regressing on another, much more complicated one: polygamy.

Polygamy, practiced for thousands of years, is now illegal in all western countries. The fifty-seven countries where polygamy is legal, however, share a few key traits: all are located in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and most have non-secular, Muslim governments. That is not to say that polygamy is a distinctly Muslim characteristic, as there exist sects of most major religions that have practiced, or continue to practice, polygamy. This is precisely the problem.

Those countries in which polygamy is forbidden–notably the Americas, Europe, and Northern Asia–pride themselves on the freedom of religious expression granted to their citizens. However, polygamy is notably not included in that supposedly all-encompassing freedom. There is little basis for many of the anti-polygamy laws in most countries, and the pushback to their existence is almost entirely religious. The laws are considered to be “moral,” however each citizen’s unique moral code should not be the state’s to determine as long as they do not violate the agency of another citizen.

Polygamy as a Human Rights Issue

Polygamy, much like any other type of marriage, is a choice. As soon as it ceased to be a choice, it would (like other forms of marriage) become illegal. As of right now, that choice is not a choice at all: it has been predetermined by the government, a lifestyle option that has been taken from the citizens. Polygamy does not, as long as it remains consensual, harm any of the parties involved.

In criminalizing polygamy, the government of a given state has passed moral judgment, and has ceased to protect and begun to infringe upon their citizens’ rights. Much like same-sex marriage, polygamists (particularly religious ones) are a minority that continue to practice polygamy without legal recognition.

The argument has been made that somehow, polygamous marriage is “less moral,” the basis for most anti-polygamy laws, however this is simply untrue: it is only immoral for those who do not participate in it. Many aspects of modern life once seemed immoral or immodest: a woman wearing pants, for example, or divorce. Despite these now-archaic illegalities, these practices are commonplace, in part because of their legalization. Should polygamy, a practice that can be traced back to biblical times, be legalized, perhaps it too will become mundane.

Banning Polygamy Prevents Religious Freedom

Controversially, a relatively recent French law was overwhelmingly passed, which made wearing “religious attire” (for example, hijab or kippah) illegal in public schools. This law was met with criticism from other nations, in addition to many French citizens, for preventing outward expression of religious beliefs. It was called a violation of freedom of expression. The fascinating part about the law was that, much like laws against polygamy, it did not affect all people equally. The law only affected those people who outwardly expressed their religion, by choosing to wear religious garments, much the way people choose to be polygamous because of religious beliefs.

Polygamy is a religious practice. Of course, the argument can be made that marriage itself, in any form, is a religious practice that has been adopted by the state for legal reasons. However, if one considers polygamous marriage to have the same religious significance as monogamous marriage, in any religion, then there is no logical reason why polygamous marriage should not be given the same legal status as monogamous marriage.

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Maya Rubin

Maya Rubin is a Yale Young Global Scholar 2016. She has had internships at the offices of two New York City government officials, as well as at Ma’yan, a Jewish women’s organization. She currently...

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