The Unexpected Motive for a Campaign to Bring Back Polygamy

The Jerusalem Post reports that a group of men are promoting a return to the ancient practice of polygamy. 


Saudi Arabia

What's happening?

Polygamy isn't as popular as it used to be in the oil-rich Gulf country. That's why a group of young Saudi men are launching a campaign to trumpet its benefits, and to encourage other men to take a few more wives. The group's representatives, worried about the growing number of "spinsters," or women over 30 trolling the streets, have a Facebook page dedicated to their message. The group's slogan is "Prophet of Four," a reference to an Islamic decree allowing men to take four wives.
Women like Saudi journalist Nadine al-Bedair may be part of the reason for the practice's waning popularity. Al-Bedair wrote an article last year in the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm arguing that polygamy is an unfair practice, and should be allowed for both men and women (the law dictates that only men can take multiple spouses). She also called attention to the poor treatment of multiple spouses; in Islam, men aren't supposed to take another wife unless they can care for them equally.

But Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East, has a political system that's hardly favorable to female equality. Women need a male guardian to study, access health services, travel abroad or have a business, and can't associate with a man who is not in their immediate family. A report written by Saudi officials in 2008 solidified the Muslim country's official stance on women's equality: "Islam, as a realistic religion, admits that total equality between man and woman is contrary to reality, as various scientific studies on their psychological differences have shown."
So the campaigners believe it's up to men, not women, to bolster the image of polygamy. But men may also be hesitant to take a third or fourth wife because the available women are often older, or divorcees, both unattractive demographics. In 2008, reported that there are over 1.5 million "spinsters" in Saudi Arabia, women who missed the traditional age window for marriage.
"It's not that [the campaigners] want to convince the women -- there are plenty of women who will accept marriage proposals -- it's that they want to convince the men to marry older women," Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi blogger who writes about women's issues, told The Media Line. "The men want virgins, not older women or divorcees." But the young women aren't interested in being the second wife for their first marriage.

What's next?

Probably not much. Experts say the campaign shouldn't be taken seriously, and that polygamy is, and will likely remain, an unpopular practice.

"Polygamy's time is over," said Thomas Lippman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "People can't afford polygamy in Saudi Arabia anymore." While Saudi Arabia is known for its oil riches, many middle class families are living below the poverty line. Per capita income in Saudi Arabia is less than half of what it was in 1980, and the country's housing shortage has made the cost of purchasing a home unaffordable for most. Women, Lippman explains, are expensive. Each wife, for example, requires a private driver who must be paid for and housed.

"Between the resistance of the women, and the economic realities," Lippman says, "I think this campaign is unlikely to get legs."

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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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