Harm or Right? Polygamy’s Contested Terrain Within and Across Borders.

How does the criminalization of polygamy challenge nation-states to wrestle with competing laws and values of women’s right to equality, the right to freedom of religion and culture, and the right to sexual and familial intimacy? Polygamy is the practice in which an individual marries more than one spouse at the same time. There are several forms: polygyny, in which one man is married to several wives; polyandry, in which one woman is married to several husbands; and group marriage, in which more than two husbands are married to more than two wives. Polygyny is the more dominant form of polygamy globally; polyandry is largely concentrated in the Himalayan areas of South Asia, although it is sporadically found in Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and the Arctic. Group marriage is only practiced rarely in traditional societies. Contemporary societies have seen the growth of polyamory, which refers to romantic and/or sexual relationships involving multiple partners with or without marriage (Zeitzen 2008).

This project compares polygamy’s regulation in Canada, the United States, France, and Mayotte to offer a window into national tensions concerning cultural tradition and transformations in sexual intimacy and family life in a globalizing world. Using ethnographic methods and legal and media analysis, it seeks to understand how nations contend with contested meanings of gender equality, citizenship, human rights, and religious freedom. Canada and the United States share an Anglo-Protestant heritage and a common border, and both face increasing concern over polygamy’s practice among fundamentalist Mormons. In France, where roughly 140,000 people live in polygamy, the government passed new legislation that seeks to compel these families to “de-cohabit.” On March 29, 2009, Mayotte citizens voted to become the 101st department of France and now must bar all forms of polygamous unions.

Three broad questions are addressed: 1) Does polygamy’s criminalization expand democratic citizenship rights and gender equality?  2) How do governments seek to balance competing rights of equality, sexual and familial intimacy, and religious freedom in regulating polygamy? 3) How do understandings of cultural patterns and laws regarding polygamy move across borders? Studying competing rights in the regulation of polygamy will contribute to an emerging body of research that seeks to understand how rights, gender, sexuality, and culture interact, come into conflict, and discursively construct one another. This research will further add to the growing body of literature on rights and citizenship by mapping out the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion that reflect broad political patterns of social difference and inequality, and apply to other global issues such as the politics of the “veil” and sex trafficking.

“Harm or Right? Polygamy’s Contested Terrain Within and Across Borders” is funded by a  5-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. It has been reviewed and approved by the McMaster Research Ethics Board at McMaster University (protocol # 2010-087).