Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands

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By: Debra Majeed

Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2015. 194p. $74.95. ISBN: 978-0-813060774.

Volume: 3 Issue: 12

December 2015

Review by:

Chiara Sebastiani, PhD

University of Bologna

Bologna, Italy

In a globalized world in which basic the structures of human societies — including family, man-woman relationships, parenthood and gender – are critically viewed in public discourse and factually challenged by innovative legal arrangements — polygyny still appears a kind of taboo, more appropriate a subject for political condemnation than one for academic inquiry. Debra Majeed’s book is thus a groundbreaking contribution for several reasons. First, it reframes the topic right from start with her both accurate and provocative choice of words: “polygyny” – by far the more common polygamous arrangement – makes us aware of asymmetrical positions between men engaged in a polygamous marriage in which they take responsibility for many women and women engaged in a monogamous union with a man they share with other wives and of the fact that this, not polyandry, is by far the more common polygamous arrangement. Second, it questions polygyny as a practice and institution based on consenting adult relationships rather than as sheer evidence of patriarchal oppression. Third, it manages to condense extensive fieldwork involving both quantitative and qualitative research in a compact narrative format which makes her work a lively and pleasant reading on one hand, a dense matter for reflection on the other.

For ten years Majeed has carried out ethnographic research in fifteen mosques belonging to African American Muslim communities following the teachings of international religious leader Imam W.D. Mohammed, and located in thirteen different-sized cities across the United States and Canada. Though her interviews include adults of both sexes currently or formerly living polygyny, she gives voice mainly to women, two of the (many) purposes of her work being “to present multiple-wife marriage from the perspectives of Muslim women” and to promote their “authority of experience”, both framed within the epistemology of “Muslim womanism”. Each chapter starts with a vignette – a short story depicting the experiences and plights of individuals, couples, triads involved in multiple-wife marriages — which is then discussed each time through a different prism: culture, power and agency in gender relationships, effects on children, the influence of religion on personal choices and the sometimes conflicting impact of the legal system on one hand, religious norms and values on the other, on the lives of individuals falling under the authority of both. Her findings lead her to outline three types of polygynous unions which she labels as “liberation” (when wives think this arrangement is the best possible and actively engage to make their own marriage a multiple-wife union), “choice” (not a ideal option but the best among a limited number) and coercion (an imposition of the husband regardless of his wife’s feelings).

While the existence of such a typology appears quite convincing, questions arise regarding on one hand its scope beyond the population of African American Muslims and its small segment of polygynous households (fewer than a thousand, the author estimates, representing a 0.07% of all African American Muslims), on the other the variables which may explain it. The first question arises from some uncertainty in the definition of the total population of which a sample is presented as object of the study. Is it the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 people living in polygyny living in the country, or the totality of American Muslims or that of African American Muslims? If other types of polygyny are explicitly dismissed from the inquiry, respondents’ attitudes are at one time explained with reference to “Muslims”, at another to “African Americans” at another still to “African American Muslims”. This means that the influence of either religion or culture on the emerging patterns of polygyny is distributed in a somewhat arbitrary way. Moreover one would feel the need to better identify not only African American culture, which the author does, but also African American Islam of which Majeed’s case-study — Imam Muhammad’s community – is one distinctive aspect. Through the story of this community we do get a glimpse of African American Islam — its divide between African American and immigrant Muslims, for instance, or the occasional popping up of Malcolm X — but one has the feeling that this aspect of the context is underestimated. Some of its features might further explain the scope and patterns of polygyny among its members, especially concerning such issues as female power and agency.

The second variable which appears underestimated in its capacity of explaining attitudes towards polygyny and patterns of polgynous practices is the institutional context and its legal framework. Not only is “polygyny” a family arrangement which conforms to Islamic law but has no legal validity in the United States and may in some cases be pursued as illegal but its practice is also influenced by the fact that within the context sexual relations between unmarried consenting adults, which for Islam are fornication, are legal. This leads to a range of “polygynous households” not unsimilar to extramarital (stable adulterous) or extended marital (linking current to former partners and maintaining stable relationships between siblings) relationships as can be found nowadays in secularized West. While the first rely for their maintenance solely on faith — belief in the message sent by Allah through his Messenger and the Qur’an – the second can be legally enforced. Strong though faith may be, when problems arise and human weakness is not up to faith’s ideals it is the legal framework that makes the difference – especially for women, since it determines which of the co-wives is entitled to make claims on the husband’s patrimony for herself and what claims can be made by children and on what conditions a reluctant wife can get out of an enforced polygynous union or even how far she has the power to escape it at all.

Though Majeed explicitely avoids universalizing the experience of her subjects yet she quite legitimately claims that their stories may teach us something going beyond the community she investigates. The problem is: how far beyond? Majeed insists much more on the limitations of her case study than on the broader implications that can be drawn from it and one cannot help having the feeling that this is prompted both by a subjective position and an objective caution in tackling the issue. On the one hand the author moves from an autobiographical position and explicitly links normative goals – providing a forum for women, unpacking prejudices, contributing to healthier family life — to her enquiry. On the other hand she is aware that critical attitudes (which she originally shared) towards this kind of family arrangements are based on widespread information on their many negative outcomes for women but also on their apparently encompassing some structural unavoidable imbalance between men and women.

Nevertheless Majeed supports the decriminalization of polygyny not only on the grounds of a remedy to specific problems of African American communities (ranging from the lack of marriageable men to the plight of widows, divorcees and orphans lacking support) but also on the finding — which has long been an unspoken suspect – that women may freely engage in a polygynous union because they find in it a life-style which suits them or such benefits for their marriage and family that more than compensate its inconsistencies. As the same may be said of monogamous unions, perhaps one of the most important findings of this work is that under current world-wide patriarchy what makes the difference is the power and agency women dispose of when they engage in the path of marriage and family.

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