Polygyny: Wikis


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Legal status of
Recognized under civil law

Burkina Faso
The Gambia

Saudi Arabia
South Africa
Sri Lanka1
Western Sahara

Recognized in some regions

Nigeria (BA, BO, GO, JI, KD, KA, KT, KE, NI, SO, YO, ZA)

Foreign marriages recognized

Australia (welfare only)
United Kingdom (welfare only)

Recognized under customary law

Equatorial Guinea

Sierra Leone
South Africa

Status in other jurisdictions

Côte d'Ivoire
DR Congo
Iraqi Kurdistan
Mayotte (FR)

United States

Nigeria (IM, KW, LA, NA, OY, PL)
See also

Polygamy by country
Marriage practice by country


1Illegal in all forms; Muslims exempt
2Regions governed by Sharia

*In certain countries and regions, only Muslims may legally contract a polygamous marriage

Polygyny (from neo-Greek: πολύ poly - "many", and γυνή gyny - "woman or wife")[1] is a form of marriage in which a man has two or more wives at the same time,[2] or, to put it another way, more than one woman shares a man. It is distinguished from a relationship where a man has a sexual partner outside marriage, such as a concubine, casual sexual partner, paramour, or other culturally recognized secondary partner. Polygyny is the most common form of polygamy. The much rarer practice of polyandry is the form of marriage in which one woman has two or more husbands at the same time.[3]



Polygyny has been practiced in many cultures throughout history. It was accepted in ancient Hebrew society, in classical China, and in many traditional Native American, African and Polynesian cultures. In India it was practiced during ancient times. It was accepted in ancient Greece, until the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church when having one wife, but multiple lovers became the norm. It was accepted in Sub-Saharan Africa for most of the past two millennia.

In the Hebrew Bible, polygyny was a permitted practice (and required in the case of a levirate marriage) whilst polyandry (a woman having more than one husband) was seen as adultery.

In the United States, polygyny or "Plural Marriage" was allowed in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon—LDS) Church.[citation needed] It ended in 1890 under the president of the LDS Church at the time, Wilford Woodruff.[citation needed] Officially since 1899, members of the LDS Church faced excommunication for being polygynous. There are several sects who separated themselves from LDS Church, and who have no ties nor relationship to the LDS Church that continue to practice polygyny despite polygynous marriage being illegal in the United States.[citation needed]

In historical China a child was considered to have more than one mother.[citation needed] For example, a child might have up to four mothers, the first wife being the "official mother" (嫡母) – in spoken language called "big mother" (大媽) – the others being regarded as unofficial mothers (庶母), in spoken language called "little mother" (小媽) or "aunt" (阿姨, 姨娘). However, this custom was primarily a result of the concubinage system, where only the first wife by marriage was considered the wife and the mistress of the household. A concubine did not marry her owner. Her main duty was to provide a son to her owner, and any children from the liaison were not regarded as officially hers. But she was also brought into the household to provide sexual pleasure to the man and servitude to his wife.

In polygynous marriages generally, usually one wife is the “queen wife” who is accorded a higher status than the other wives and has some authority over the other wives.[4]


There is also some research that show that males living in polygynous marriages live longer; 12 percent longer on average. This would decrease the already unbalanced male/female balance.[5]

Women have been more likely than men to be left unmarried or widowed. One current viable reason is that throughout human history males have always had a higher mortality rate. Polygyny ensured that such women were cared for and also helped ensure the births of the large numbers of children required for the survival of pre-mechanized, largely-agrarian cultures in which early mortality rates were high.[citation needed]

The required inheritance of widows requires men in some societies to marry the widow of a deceased brother. This levirate marriage helps provide support for her and increases his number of wives.

In some societies only well-to-do men could afford to have more than one wife, particularly if each wife required maintenance of a separate household. The current traditional form of Islam permits as many as four wives, but depending on the man's financial circumstances, fewer wives are more common; indeed, the vast majority of Muslim men are monogamous.

While few present-day states permit polygamous marriages, polygynous male behavior may be observed in the establishment of mistresses, who are openly or secretly supported. In this way, men may be technically monogamous but de facto polygynous.

Sororal polygyny

Sororal polygyny is a type of marriage in which two or more sisters share a husband.

Polygyny in context

The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament)

The Hebrew Bible indicates that polygyny was practiced by the ancient Hebrews, though the institution was not extremely common; it was not particularly unusual and was certainly not prohibited but discouraged by the Bible (namely Moses Law recommended that kings should not have many wives, and when Solomon took 1000 wives the Bible cites his polygamy as the reason of the fall of his faith and subsequently of Israel). The Bible mentions approximately forty polygynists, including such prominent figures as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, David and King Solomon, with little or no further remark on their polygyny as such.

The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny. Exodus 21:10 states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife, while Deuteronomy 21:15-17 states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and likes another wife more, implying that she had been divorced, and Deuteronomy 17:17 states that the king shall not have too many wives.[6][7]

The biblical institution of a levirate marriage was a positive provision towards polygyny; the institution required a man to marry and support his deceased brother's widow if he died without her having given birth to a son. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) The practice has been justified in that it was important for the brother to have died without an heir to continue his name, or say the prayers for the dead for him. It has also been argued that there were also negative factors for the childless widow since children and fertility were a sign of God's blessing. This practice also provided a means of provision for widows. If the eldest brother refused to marry the widow then it was the responsibility of the next brother and so on down the family line.

In Judaism

Since the 11th century, Ashkenazi Jews have followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban on polygyny.[8]

Some Mizrahi Jewish communities (particularly Yemenite Jews and Persian Jews) discontinued polygyny much more recently, as they immigrated to countries where it was forbidden or illegal. Such is the case in the State of Israel, which has made polygamy illegal.[9][10] In practice, however, the law is only loosely enforced, primarily so as not to interfere with Bedouin culture, where polygyny is practiced. Pre-existing polygynous unions among Jews from Arab countries (or other countries where the practice was not prohibited by their tradition and was not illegal in the local law) are also not subject to this Israeli law, although a similar cultural concession to the Bedouin is not extended to Mizrahi Jews, and they are not permitted to enter into new polygamous marriages in Israel.

Among Karaite Jews, who do not adhere to Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygyny is non-existent today. Karaites interpret Leviticus 18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent[11] and Karaites interpret Exodus 21:10 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of marital duties due to his first wife; the marital duties are

  1. food,
  2. clothing,
  3. sexual gratification.

Because of these two biblical limitations and because nearly all western countries outlaw it, polygyny is considered impractical, and there are no known cases of it among Karaite Jews.


Polygyny was practiced in the New Testament as well as the old Testament times, and only fell out of disfavor with the Catholic Church centuries after Christ.

A belief among some Christians in the United States is that polygyny is wrong and cite for example Matthew 19:4-6 (KJV):

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Some suggest the New Testament Church did ban polygyny for Bishops (1 Timothy 3:2). However, the word for "one" can be translated "first" and as an indefinite article as well, which opens other possible interpretations.

East Asia

Having offspring is very important in Chinese culture. China has practiced polygyny for thousands of years. Polygyny had been legal and was written in the law as recently as the end of the Qing/Ching dynasty of the imperial China (1911).

A part of the Confucian tradition indicates the importance of procreation, as it is considered to be part of filial piety. Therefore, it is possible that this type of thinking influenced the view towards polygyny.

In the past, Emperors could have hundreds to thousands of concubines. And subsequently rich officials and merchants could also have a number of concubines besides wives. The first wife is head or mother wife, other wives are under her headship if the husband is away, and others are concubines and have lower status than the full wives. Offspring from concubines did receive equal wealth/legacy from their father.

The original wife is referred to as the 正室/정실 (main room) both in China, Japan and Korea. 大婆 (big woman/big wife) is the slang term. Both indicate the orthodox nature and hierarchy. The official wife is either called "big mother" (大媽), mother or auntie. The child of the concubine simply addresses the big mother as auntie.

The written word for the second woman (and literally means "she who occupied the side room") is 側室/측실. This word is also used in both China and Japan. They are also called 妾/첩 in China and Korea.

The common terms referring to the second woman and the act of having the second woman respectively are 二奶 (er nai / yi nai), literally "the second wife". The terms have been widely used in the media.[12] Though illegal, it is still practiced by many richer men who can afford to support a mistress and her subsequent children. The mass media often report polygyny cases of the rich and the famous.

People's Republic of China (PRC)

In modern mainland China, polygamy (and by extension polygyny) is illegal under Marriage Law passed in 1951[citation needed], except for those members of an ethnic minority who traditionally practice polygamy (both polygyny and polyandry). Polygyny was seen as a characteristic of the bourgeoisie and as such, many senior Communist leaders who had mistresses and concubines during the Long March were forced to disband them. Because of this, polygyny is virtually unheard of in China today.

However, with the opening up of the country and the increased contact with Hong Kong and Taiwan, certain polygamous activities began appearing. Cross-border polygyny is ever increasing between PRC, Hong Kong and ROC.[citation needed]

Taiwan – Republic of China (ROC)

Polygyny is illegal in the 1930 ROC civil law.[13] However, it is common for some richer Taiwanese to have secret second lovers who become concubines not living together with the wife.[citation needed] Taiwanese merchants, businessmen and workers are stationed in mainland China during work trips, and it is usual to keep secret lovers or even secret families there.

Hong Kong and Macau

Polygyny was banned in October 1971 but the practice is still evident. Chinese men in Hong Kong could still practice polygamy by virtue of the Qing Code, which ended only with the passing of the Marriage Act of 1971. A famous example is Dr Stanley Ho who owned the Macau Casino in Lisbon. He has four wives. His uncle has 12 wives.[citation needed]

Kevin Murphy of the International Herald Tribune reported on the cross-border polygamy phenomenon in Hong Kong in 1995.[14] The cost of maintaining a second family is lower in the PRC. Since work pressure in Hong Kong is extremely high and the birth rate is the lowest in the world, many local businessmen keep a secret concubine across the border in mainland China.[citation needed] Girls in mainland China are moreover more willing to be full-time mothers at a younger age.

In a research paper of Berlin Humboldt University on sexology, Doctor Man-Lun Ng estimated about 300,000 men to have mistresses in China. In 1995, 40% of extramarital affairs involved a stable partner[15]

Period drama is performed to this day depicting the former culture of polygamy (usually polygyny). A famous example is the Wuxia novel The Deer and the Cauldron by Hong Kong writer Louis Cha, in which the protagonist Wei Xiaobao has seven wives. The novel and its film and TV series adaptations became immensely popular among Chinese-speaking communities around the world.


Although it is permitted in most Islamic countries under certain circumstances, polygamy is not widely practiced under Islam. Men who marry more than one woman may do so with the contraints that they are responsible for treating all their wives with kindness and dignity as well as for providing for their material needs equally. An important reason for polygamy in Islam is to support women in case the community has a high ratio of female to male (such as in most modern communities). Work is mainly given to men, so that polygamy becomes a duty rather than a privilege.[citation needed]

Several majority Muslim countries not including Albania, Tunisia, Turkey, and former USSR republics retain the traditional Sharia which interprets teachings of the Quran to permit polygamy with up to four wives, as long as it is practiced under the specified conditions. Albania is a country where, although about 70% of the population is historically Muslim, the majority is non-practicing. Turkey and Tunisia are countries with absolute majority Muslim populations (99.8% and 98% respectively) that enforce secularist practices by law. In the former USSR republics, a prohibition against polygamy has been inherited from Soviet Law. A current revival of polygamy in the Muslim World has seen attempts to re-legalize and re-legitimize it in some countries and communities where it is illegal.


Polygamy is illegal throughout the Russian Federation but is tolerated in predominantly Muslim republics such as Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.[16] Ramzan Kadyrov, President of the Chechen Republic, has been quoted on radio as saying that the depopulation of Chechnya by war justifies legalizing polygamy.[17] Kadyrov has been supported by Nafigallah Ashirov, the Chairman of the Council of Grand Muftis of Russia, with the statement that polygamy is already widespread among Muslim communities of the country.[18]

Although non-Muslim Russian populations are historically monogamous, Russian liberal democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky offers to legalize polygyny in order to tackle the demographic crisis of Russians. Zhirinovsky made his first proposal to legalize polygamy as early as 1993, after Kadyrov's declaration that he would introduce an amendment to legalize polygyny for all Russian citizens.[19][20]


Although illegal, polygamy is a traditional practice that has been revived in Kyrgyzstan. A proposal to decriminalize polygamy came before the Kyrgyz parliament and on March 26, 2007, despite strong backing of the Justice Minister, the country's ombudsman and the Muslim Women's organization Mutakalim that gathered 40,000 signatures in favour of polygamy, the parliament rejected the bill. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is known as a prominent opponent of legalizing polygyny.[21][22]


Due to a recent increase in the number of polygamous marriages, proposals were made in Tajikistan to re-legalize polygamy.[23] Tajik women who want to be second wives are particularly supportive of decriminalizing polygyny. Mukhiddin Kabiri, the Deputy Chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan states that legislation is unlikely to stop the growth in polygyny and criticizes the ruling élite for speaking out against the practice while taking more than one wife themselves.[24]

Other former USSR republics

There have also been recent arguments in favour of re-legalizing polygamy in other ex-Soviet Muslim republics like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.[25]

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Muslim communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been traditionally known to practice polygamy at a very limited level. The custom last existed in Cazinska Krajina in the early 1950s.[26] Although illegal in the country, polygamy is encouraged by certain religious circles and there is a current increase in the number of practitioners. This trend appears linked with the advent of Wahhabism in the Balkans.[27]

The Bosniak population in neighbouring Sandžak has also been affected by this trend in Bosnia. There have been attempts to adopt an entire Islamic jurisdiction including polygamy but these moves have been rejected. However, this has not barred the top cleric, the Mufti of Novi Pazar, Muamer Zukorlić from taking a second wife.[28]


In Turkey, polygamy has been strictly discouraged since the adoption of the Turkish Civil Code in 1926, a milestone in Atatürk's secularist reforms. Although prohibited in legislation and not approved by state authorities, polygamous marriages are conducted and praised by imams who are, in the Turkish context, civil servants of Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı. Turkey, as a member of the OIC, is also a signatory of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam that considers Sharia as the sole reference for human rights issues.

Polygamy is a common occurrence in Kurdish villages.[29] Overall, it is on the rise in Turkey.[30] An opinion poll in 2004 showed that 63% of Turks favored polygamy.[31] On April 6, 2007, the Municipal Assembly of Çıplaklı in Alanya, composed of members of the ruling moderate Islamist AK Parti and conservative-liberal ANAP, unanimously adopted a resolution to support men who consider taking a second wife (kuma). The people of Çıplaklı are Yörük, a Turkic ethnicity who practice transhumance. "When we go to the summer pastures and leave our wives behind, we feel very lonely," explained Ali İhsan Topal, a member of the Assembly from the AK Parti.[32]

United States and Canada

The most prominent American polygamous society is the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a splinter sect of Latter Day Saint movement based in Colorado City. In 2005, a meeting was called between the governors of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in an effort to economically and politically isolate religious sects that practice polygamy, mainly the FLDS.[citation needed] British Columbia has also politically isolated its small polygynous religious community, located in the southeastern portion of the province.[citation needed] Fundamentalist Mormons represent a growing number of polygamous marriages in the US today. With growing fear of daycares, concerns over the lack of discipline in public schools, and the blossoming of so called "Super Preachers" and "Super Churches", fundamentalist Mormons are seeking to strengthen the family though plural marriage, where the children are cared for within the home.

Figure 1. Frequency of Marriage Types Across Cultures from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of pre-industrial societies (Murdock & White 1969)

In nature

Several species such as the wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus possess a polygamous social order in which males mate with multiple females. Such circumstances result in competition between males during reproductive periods. This competition can extend beyond the superficial scrambling for females and exists at a microscopic level as competition between spermatozoa in the reproductive tract of the female organism.

A variety of methods for practicing polygamy can be observed in the animal kingdom.[33] For example, female defense polygyny is seen in marine amphipods, where the male herds the females into a cluster. This allows them to be protected by the male, while the male has continuous access to the females. Resource defense polygyny is a strategy seen in African cichlid fish, where the male collects empty snail shells which the females use to lay eggs. A third type is scramble competition polygamy, where females are widely spaced or fertility is time-limited, as in orangutans.

Elephant seals are known from long-term behavioral studies to be highly polygynous.[34]

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, s.v. γυνή
  2. ^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. 'polygyny'.
  3. ^ Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, s.v. ‘polyandry’.
  4. ^ Ridley, M. (1995) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-024548-0.
  5. ^ http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14564
  6. ^ Judaica Press Complete Tanach, Devarim - Chapter 17 from Chabad.org.
  7. ^ The king's behavior is condemned by Prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8.
  8. ^ Frequently asked questions, Judaism and Polygamy.
  9. ^ Israel 2008: State of Polygamy.
  10. ^ Victims of polygamy.
  11. ^ Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp.96—97.
  12. ^ Google.com.hk
  13. ^ SHS.edu.tw 民法-結婚要件之研析
  14. ^ IHT.com.
  15. ^ Hu-berlin.de
  16. ^ Independent.co.uk.
  17. ^ Blogspot.com.
  18. ^ IPSnews.net.
  19. ^ SPtimes.ru.
  20. ^ BBC.co.uk.
  21. ^ Rferl.org.
  22. ^ Rferl.org.
  23. ^ Eurasianet.org.
  24. ^ IWPR.net.
  25. ^ Rickross.com.
  26. ^ Everyculture.com.
  27. ^ B92.net.
  28. ^ WLUML/org.
  29. ^ BBC.co.uk.
  30. ^ Oponionjournal.com
  31. ^ Parapundit.com
  32. ^ Radikal.com.
  33. ^ Vassar.edu
  34. ^ http://beheco.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/arh112v1

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