Sorting out Kenya’s polygamy policy

SlateMay 12, 2014 

— Americans are accustomed to a marriage debate between traditionalists and egalitarians. The traditionalists say marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The egalitarians say all marriages, gay or straight, should be treated the same. The egalitarians also ground their view in pluralism, arguing that the law should respect different ways of life.

In other parts of the world, however, these ideas aren’t always at odds. Traditional, equality and pluralism sometimes converge. But they don’t converge in the way Americans might expect. What they converge on is polygamy.

That’s what is now happening in Kenya. This month President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law the Marriage Act 2014, which legalizes simultaneous marriages. According to Kenya’s presidential news agency, the new law stipulates that “marriage is the voluntary union of a man and a woman whether in a monogamous or polygamous union.”

Traditionalists are delighted with the new law. As Agence France-Presse explains, “polygamy is common among traditional communities in Kenya, as well as in the country’s Muslim community, which accounts for up to a fifth of the population.” In approving the legislation, lawmakers also quoted the Bible, citing King Solomon’s marriages.

Many egalitarians also favored the bill. “We are happy with the law because finally all marriages are being treated equally,” the director of Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers told CNN. “All marriages will be issued with marriage certificates, including customary marriages. Before this, customary marriages were treated as inferior with no marriage certificates. This opened up suffering for the women because they could not legally prove they were married to a particular man.”

Other women objected, particularly because the law doesn’t require a man to notify his first wife when acquiring a second. Some Christian leaders also opposed the bill. But Christian lawmakers helped pass it, in part out of respect for pluralism. “Not all Kenyans are Christians,” observed a Christian who represents a Muslim community. “If church leaders want to completely outlaw polygamy, they should propose a bill. But that’s impossible under our constitution.”

Each side in the U.S. marriage debate can claim that the Kenyan experience supports its views. American traditionalists have warned all along that gay marriage will lead to polygamy. Egalitarians can point out that Kenya’s embrace of polygamy actually coincides with a ruthless crackdown on homosexuality, underscoring the moral emptiness of appeals to tradition.

But the real message from Kenya is that all the principles we invoke – tradition, equality, pluralism – are more complicated than we imagine. They go well beyond our favorite contexts, leading to results we may find repellent. Faced with those consequences, we can choose to accept them – embracing polygamy, for example. Or we can rethink the limits of our ideological commitments.

Saletan (@saletan) covers science, technology and politics for Slate.

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