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Imposing monogamous marriage helped pacify the west

My column in The Times:

When the Kurdish peshmerga forces broke the siege of Mount Sinjar last week, there was no trace of the 5,000 Yazidi women and children abducted from the area in August. It is thought that they have been mostly sold as concubines to jihadist fighters of Islamic State. When The Times posed as two British girls interested in joining Islamic State, they were told: “The only way to guarantee being together is marrying the same man.” The 219 girls still missing in Nigeria after being abducted in April have been “married off”, according to the leader of Boko Haram.

My point in connecting these incidents is that throughout history polygamy has fuelled violence. Might it be worth suggesting to Muslim leaders, religious and secular, that they push for monogamous norms as one way to reduce violence and bring more peace to the Middle East and to north and west Africa? Of course, polygamy is not the only or the main cause of violence in such places, but it almost certainly contributes.

The correlation between violence and polygamy (strictly, polygyny — being married to more than one wife at the same time — as having more than one husband is much rarer) is not just about violence to women. It is also about violence among men. From Troy to Brigham Young, from Genghis Khan to Islamic State, there has been a tendency for nations that allow polygamous marriage to exhibit more crime and more warfare than those that do not. The cause is increased competition for mates. Polygamy results in more unmarried young men, and these commit most violence.

Even moderate polygamy can produce large imbalances. Imagine that in a village of 50 men and 50 women, two men have four wives, four men have three wives and fourteen have two wives: that leaves 30 men chasing the remaining two women. A recipe for trouble.

A fascinating 2009 paper called The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage, by the anthropologist Joe Henrich and his colleagues, detailed the historical correlation between polygamy and crime, chillingly explaining it thus: “Faced with high levels of intra-sexual competition and little chance of obtaining even one long-term mate, unmarried, low-status men will heavily discount the future and more readily engage in risky status-elevating and sex-seeking behaviours. This will result in higher rates of murder, theft, rape, social disruption, kidnapping (especially of females), sexual slavery and prostitution.”

The authors argue that the gradual and erratic imposition over many centuries of “normative monogamy” in Europe and then much of the rest of the world was motivated largely by rulers wanting to suppress crime and violence. Or perhaps societies that suppressed polygamy proved more successful, displacing those that didn’t.

Professor Henrich even argues that the advance of monogamy played a part in the industrial revolution. Reducing the pool of unmarried men and levelling the reproductive playing field not only decreased crime, but spurred commerce and innovation. Once men stop striving to achieve marriage (or double marriage) they invest their energy in more productive ambitions.

The story of Figaro and the plot of Richardson’s Pamela both testify to the box-office success of tales about punishing powerful men for indulging in droit de seigneur in the 18th century, a last echo of the time when rich men in the west could get away with having concubines. By the time of Queen Victoria, not even the richest man could have a harem — unless in secret.

The longer history of polygamy and monogamy is a rollercoaster. In the stone age, hunter-gatherers were (and where they exist still are) usually only slightly polygamous, reflecting a high death rate of males in wars and hunts. With the advent of agriculture, polygamous marriage flourished, resulting in vast harems for Bronze Age emperors in Egypt, China, India, Peru and Mexico. Then while polygamy faded in Christendom, highly unbalanced polygamy persisted in pastoral societies in central Asia and the Middle East, perhaps because having a hundred sheep is not much harder than having ten, so wealth inequality brought marital rewards.

Little wonder that pastoralists exploded out of central Asia at regular intervals, if only to satisfy the need of their low-status, unmarried men to kill men and abduct women: hence Huns, Tartars, Mongols, Turks, Moghuls. In 1401 Tamerlane marched through what is now northern Iraq, sacked Baghdad and ordered his men to produce two enemy skulls each or lose their own. Women were taken as sexual slaves. Not much different from what Islamic State did near there last year.

Today most of the world’s officially sanctioned polygamy coincides with Islam. The rest is in sub-Saharan Africa (and Burma). Some Muslim countries, such as Tunisia and Turkey, forbid it, while others, such as Egypt, discourage it. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, polygamy is legal (up to four wives) but faces stiff opposition and is hedged about with restrictions: a man must treat his wives equally and support them financially. It is forbidden to civil servants and the military. It is no coincidence that women’s rights are stronger in Indonesia than in some Muslim countries and women less cloistered and veiled.

The Kurds passed a law restricting polygamy in 2008 — it is forbidden unless the current wife agrees, punishable by up to a year in prison (this is also the law in Libya and Morocco). Certainly, Kurds have gone further in promoting women’s rights than some Muslim societies, as their rather competent snipers fighting Islamic State illustrate. The law remains controversial however, with some arguing that monogamy leads to more adultery and deprives widows of opportunities to remarry.

Sharia does not discourage polygamy, but nor does the Old Testament and nor did some early Christian fathers, and they proved capable of change. By one estimate there may be as many as 20,000 polygamous Muslim men in Britain: a television programme in September featured Nabilah Philips, a Malaysian- born Cambridge PhD student who willingly became the second wife of a Muslim convert who promptly added a third during filming. Mr Philips spends three nights with each wife.

Still, polygamy is probably in very slow retreat in the Muslim world. Even in Saudi Arabia, there is growing reluctance among women to become second wives. Islamic State is, of course, a reactionary exception.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times