Kenya's new Marriage Bill manages to both legalize the longstanding cultural practice of polygamy and to bolster the religious mantra that marriage is only between a man and a woman (and a woman and a woman). Supporters of the law, cultural traditionalists, are in favor of polygamy, but the law also bans the cultural tradition of paying a dowry to the bride's family. This is a real life application of the men's right's movement — Kenya used "tradition" to give men a break from female oppression.
The law "consolidates various laws relating to marriage," specifically customary laws on polygamy. In Kenya a man can now legally marry as many women as he wants to in a traditional ceremony (as in, outside of the Christian church), without consulting his wife. Those against the bill argued it infringed on the rights of women and endangered monogamy, while supporters said that polygamy is a cultural tradition. It just so happens that the traditionalists happen to be the ones who've always held the most power — Kenyan men.
The argument for legalizing polygamy is that the practice is part of Kenya's pre-colonial heritage, as well as sanctioned by the Bible. "Solomon never notified anyone," as one male member of parliament said while the bill was debated. "It is in the Old Testament." As it turns out, several major religious groups, as well as Kenya's heads of the Anglican and Catholic churches spoke out against the law. "I have to say that the proposal... to recognize in law the right of men to have as many wives as they like was cowardly and will be a backward step for Kenya if it becomes law," Wabukala said earlier this month, according to The Star.
Nderitu Njoka, the chairman of Men's Empowerment and Development in Kenya, also tried to make the case that polygamy should be legal because it is deeply ingrained in Kenyan culture. He told Al Jazeera America that "in Africa, polygamy is a way of life, and when you're making a law you must go back to what the society wants." It makes sense for Njoka to weigh in: MED believes "society wants" to counteract efforts to empower women "at the expense of men and boys."
Kenyan women are very aware that this law comes at their expense. Regina Nthambi, a female member of parliament, argued last month that because many women cannot afford a church wedding, they'll be subject to polygamous marriages against their will. “Not all women are able to organize marriages in church. The law is not for us only," she said, referring to the other female MPs. "It is for all women in Kenya. We’re not going to favor you men. This bill is for women." Nthambi and other female MP left the debate in protest, after arguing that men should at least have the courage to discuss a new wife with their old wife. A clause in the law requiring men to notify wife #1 of wife #2 was written out by the mostly male body.
Kenya's The Daily Nation notes that the amendments that cut the clause "appeared more designed to serve the marital needs and assuage the financial fears of male MPs." The country and the politics are different, but making men feel secure is something men's right's activists around the world can bond over.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.