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A history of multiple bedmates

Fatima Asmal-Motala

Polygamy is not just about a man having multiple spouses. It has various offshoots such as polyandry, where a woman has the multiple spouses.

Although “polygamy” (also known as polygyny) is generally understood to mean a marriage in which a man has multiple wives, the term has broader scope. In fact, it refers to three types of practices: polyandry, in which a woman has multiple simultaneous husbands; polygamy, which entails a man having multiple simultaneous wives; and group marriage, where the family unit consists of multiple husbands and wives.

Historically, polygamy seems to have been the most common of these three practices. In fact, according to an article published in New Scientist magazine in 2008, a study of variations in DNA suggested that a few men seem to have had a greater input into the gene pool than the rest.

“Tens of thousands of years of polygamy has left a mark on our genomes that is a signature that small numbers of males must have mated with lots of females,” the article stated.

Out of 1231 societies noted in the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook—derived from American anthropologist George P Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, which recorded the marital composition of societies from 1960 to 1980—186 of those societies were monogamous, 453 had occasional polygamy, 588 had more frequent polygamy and four had polyandry.

In the United States polygamy has had a long history and many Native American tribes practised it. European “mountain men” also adopted the practice, often taking on native wives.

Today, both Hindus and Christians strongly discourage polygamy, although it is thought to have been practised by historical figures in both religions. The Hindu god Lord Krishna had 16 108 wives and the Old Testament mentions the polygamy of patriarchal figures within the Christian faith.

Polygamy is technically not forbidden in Jewish law, but these days it usually only occurs in non-European Jewish communities, such as those in Arab countries that do not legally prohibit it.

Judaism’s central text, the Torah, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygamy.

Islam permits a man to marry a maximum of four women, provided he treats them equitably in terms of financial support as well as division of time between them. However, although polygamy is fairly common in some Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia, it is almost nonexistent or rare in others and is even banned in some Muslim-majority countries that have not adopted Islamic law. 

Historically, polygamy has been practised all over Africa as an aspect of culture, religion or both. It continues to be prevalent in West Africa, but the diffusion of Islam to this region has meant that, unlike before, there are now restrictions on the number of women a man may marry.

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