Thursday, January 26, 2006

Polygamy in Canada

Last night's Fifth Estate featured an extremist Mormon community in BC that practices polygamy. The guy they were interviewing had 20 "wives." He argued that if people have the right to be adulterous or enter same-sex marriages, then he has the right to live his lifestyle.

What was weird was that except for the multiple-wife thing (and except for the skating arena he has to rent every time his 'family' wants to go skating), he seemed kind of normal. Trust me, it was eerie.

The question, then, is what does a pluralistic, accepting nation like Canada do with polygamy? On the one hand, the government tends to want to stay out of the bedrooms of the nation. On the other hand, we know that multiple-marriages virtually always involve multiple wives, not multiple husbands. (Even the idea of multiple husbands is enough to make women run off screaming.) Moreover, polygamy women occupy a low status in their society and religion, are usually deprived of a full education, are denied birth control options, and are usually married without real consent at an age too young to know what is happening. Moreover, they live very restricted lives under a severely patriarchal system that imposes rules regarding their movements, clothing, and obedience and denies them knowledge of the outside world.

The polygamists would argue that the women have chosen this life. I would hand them a dictionary have them look up "choose."

One concern about polygamy is that the idea can spread, especially to other religious groups with strong patriarchal or Old-Testament tendencies. Western women have worked hard to gain the right to freedom and autonomy. If polygamy becomes widely accepted, then women will once again be relegated to a low status.

The courts are going to have to decide this. And it’s going to be tricky, because fundamentally, people are free to live the lifestyles they choose. So what to do?

The courts can start by focusing the definition of marriage to exclude communal groups. A Western marriage is a relationship and a partnership. A man with 20 women is neither relationship nor partnership. Moreover, multiple marriages are not in the public interest, since they would skew the ratio of available males and females in society and cause strife. So the courts can restrict the definition of spouse to 1/uno/un.

This would mean that only the first woman a man marries can be regarded as his legal wife for legal, inheritance, travel, and insurance purposes. The others would have no status except consensual adultery. If those women wish to marry someone else (or each other, as in the same-sex marriage of 2 of the 20 "wives" on TV last night!), they would have the freedom to do so. Moreover, the children of the other women would all belong entirely to their mothers.

In the case of divorce, only the legal wife can divorce. She can use adultery as the cause. (No kidding?) But the courts may want to create a form of "aggravated adultery," to refer to any situation in which the woman has to endure adultery in her own home against her will. This would open an option for legal action against the husband and the religious organization.

Yes, now we're getting into the "negative reinforcement" section...

In addition, if any of the other women want to "divorce," all they would have to do is leave -- because they're not married. If they put the father’s name is on any birth certificates, they can sue for child support for their children (otherwise, they would seek a paternity suit the old-fashioned way). Also, if the fake marriage was performed by a religious organization, she can also sue the husband and clergy for false marriage. AND if she was being held in the marriage against her will or was "married" before a reasonable age of consent into a group situation, then she can sue for these additional forms of abuse, which could carry a criminal charge.

Message from the courts: It's up to you, dude, but you will probably regret it.

I would also suggest that the RCMP should be able to seek warrants to enter premises where polygamy is suspected so that they visit the building or school and educate the "house of spouses" about their rights and their options under Canadian law. Resistance to these warrants would constitute grounds for arrest.

These laws would not make it a crime to part of a consensual sexual group, if that is the lifestyle a guy chooses. However, they would restrict the legal recognition of such arrangements and provide for the rights of the women involved. In short, they would make the risks and costs of these arrangements high enough to discourage men and religions from getting involved.

The risks to the women are already quite apparent.

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