Polygamy Returns to Iraq

Half a man is better than none?

The BBC reports that nearly a million Iraqi women have been widowed either in the Iran-Iraq War or in the bombings since the fall of Saddam Hussein.  The historical solution to a shortage of men is having multiple women share a man's support and protection, but this is against Iraqi law:

Under current Iraqi law, polygamy is illegal unless authorised by a judge - though it is part of the country's Islamic tradition and has been backed in recent years by some religious groups.

As with most vital issues relating to reproduction, however, Iraqis have been finding informal ways to deal with the problem regardless of the law.

Throughout history, polygamy has always been common as wealthy, powerful men sought to enhance reproductive success by gaining access to as many women as they could.  It becomes particularly prevalent when war or hunting accidents reduce the number of available men.

Polygamy has bad effects in any society where men and women survive to maturity in roughly equal numbers, however.  Taking too many women out of circulation means that many men can't find wives.  Having too many rootless men tends to destabilize society.  In most countries, polygamy is either illegal or frowned on.

In the United States, the Mormon church banned polygamy in 1890, but polygamous offshoots continue to flourish.  The men are careful to enter into official marriage with only one woman so as not to violate the law.  The other "wives" collect welfare as female-headed households.  Taxpayer money helps pay the bills incurred by multiple families.

Who Pays the Bills

The problem that those who promote Iraqi polygamy seek to solve is as old as humanity - "How do we make sure that women and children are fed, clothed, and housed?"  This is the central question of any society - tribes and families which don't find durable answers to this question become extinct.  Even if the kids are kept alive, the culture disappears in one generation if children aren't taught their cultural traditions and norms.

The traditional solution to feeding and taking care of kids is for women to marry so that their husbands can support them and their children.  Parents arranged marriages for centuries.  One of the father's major concerns was making sure that the prospective husband would be able to provide for his daughter and for his grandchildren.

No matter how capable a woman was or how wealthy her family, she could always do better by her children if she had a man to help her.  In some societies, a prospective groom had to pay a "bride price" to show that he was financially worthy and to compensate her parents for the cost of raising her.

Maybe a drink would ease the pain?

The BBC tells of an Iraqi widow named Hannan who works as a hairdresser to support her three surviving children.  The traditional customs of getting support from family members won't work for her since she lost eight family members in the war.

She told the BBC she needed a "man shelter," and ended up married to a married man who told her he was divorced.  He later made up with his wife and now sees Hannan once a week, but the advantages of having part of a man outweigh the disadvantages of sharing him with his other wife.

This situation is common enough to lead some Iraqi lawmakers to propose financial incentives for married men to marry widows.  This would be equivalent to the government providing the traditional dowry which the bride's family paid the groom as part of the consideration for the marriage.  There are so many more women than men in Iraq that the notion of a "bride price" is unsustainable.

Other Points of View

As one would expect, there are various opinions on the subject.

Nada Ibrahim, a member of parliament, supports the idea of polygamous marriage in principle - as long as a husband treats his wives "with justice".

However, she also believes that the government should provide more support for widows, to make it easier for them to survive without men[emphasis added]

Wasn't one of the major reasons well-meaning Americans set up the welfare system a desire to help women survive without men?  The American experience shows that when they're relieved of worries about paying for their children, women tend to have large families of state-supported fatherless children.

This not only costs a great deal of tax money which should come from fathers, fatherless children don't do as well as children who're brought up in two-parent families.  It might not be the best of ideas for the Iraqi government to institute a welfare system which promotes the multiplication of fatherless children.  Given income from oil, they can probably afford it for a while, but the unintended consequences of the American welfare system show that the results of letting women decouple reproduction from a long-term relationship with her children's father aren't good for society as a whole.

As one would expect, there's no shortage of politicians suggesting that the government should step in:

"Widows are often young and don't have jobs, health insurance or social security. We shouldn't encourage them only to get married," she says.

Spoken like a true feminist!  A welfare check is as good as a father, keep men out of the picture, and collect campaign contributions and votes on the side!

Unlike most widows, Hannan earns enough to support her children.  She wasn't overjoyed about sharing her new husband with his first wife, but she really wanted a man in her life:

"I used to feel vulnerable with no support, afraid that anyone could attack me and anyone could harass me," she says.

"A man's protection is like a shelter. And this is what a woman needs from a man."

Hannan chose to defy the law and remain in her illegal polygamous marriage even after her husband made up with his first wife.  She could support herself and her children without him, but chose to live with him on a part-time basis anyway.

Isn't that what freedom is all about?  Letting each man and woman - well, the women anyway - make choices for themselves?

Or is this not the kind of choice women's libbers are talking about when they say they're "pro-choice?"

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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