Polygamy: The Argument Between Regulating & Banning

Mass L. Usuf
LL. B (Hons.) U.K., ACIS (U.K.)
Attorney at Law
(Ex-Advisor to the former Private Department of the President of U.A.E.)

In August 2015, Myanmar’s President signed off on polygamy law proposed by the hardline Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha, seen as targeting and discriminating against the country’s Muslim minority. Ma Ba Tha, accuses Muslims of trying to take over the country by “outbreeding” its Buddhist majority. “They set out the potential for discrimination on religious grounds ..” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch as reported by the German Deutsche Welle on 31/08/2015.

In Sri Lanka, we have heard of this same malicious propaganda of a ‘Muslim invasion’!! Not of the military type but by an increase in population. Think about the duplicity of social norms and values and the relative hypocrisy in reasoning. Indulging in multiple sexual relationships with several adult partners are not punishable but one legal polygamous marriage which will give all rights to the woman, is considered illegal. Polygamy per se is not a problem, how it is understood and perceived is the problem. The misguided and unwise Cabinet decision to ban polygamy in Sri Lanka will provide further ammunition to all the international rights bodies. No doubt the ban targets and discriminates against the Muslims.

Differences In Values

Let us look at values in Personal and Social norms to understand the character of relativeness in them. We, in Sri Lanka, do not eat dog meat but “Asocena” a Filipino dish primarily consisting of dog meat is savoured in the Philippines. Muslims do not eat pork but others relish it. In Sri Lanka spitting at another is considered a disgusting act. In Greece spitting three times on the Bride and Groom is a tradition, to protect them from any evil spirits. In Sri Lanka, polyandry, where a woman has more than one husband, was legally practiced in the kingdom of Kandy. This was not acceptable to the British. Polyandry (especially fraternal polyandry) is also common among Buddhists in Bhutan, Ladakh, and other parts of the Indian subcontinent. Polygamy is normal in several tribes in the African states. If anyone speaks against polygamy in such places they will be frowned upon. In Sri Lanka no one is introducing polygamy. It has been in existence from time immemorial. The Cabinet decision is going to deny this right practiced since ‘antiquity’, as law would call it.

Serial Monogamy

Multiple marriages do take place in the case of remarriage due to death or divorce but a single spouse at a time. This is called ‘Serial Monogamy’. According to Danish scholar Miriam K. Zeitzen, anthropologists treat serial monogamy, in which divorce and remarriage occur, as a form of polygamy as it also can establish a series of households that may continue to be tied by shared paternity and shared income (as in a polygamous marriage). Serial monogamy creates a new kind of relative, the “ex-“. The “ex-wife”, for example, can remain an active part of her “ex-husband’s” life, as they may be tied together by legally or informally mandated economic support, which can last for years, including by alimony, child support, and joint custody. (Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Oxford.).

Bob Simpson, the British social anthropologist, notes that it creates an “extended family” by tying together a number of households, including mobile children. He says that Britons may have ex‑wives or ex‑brothers‑in‑law, but not an ex‑child. According to him, these “unclear families” do not fit the mold of the monogamous nuclear family. (Changing Families: An Ethnographic Approach to Divorce and Separation.).

When we consider a polygamous marriage the wife, children, in-laws and relations are involved. While in a ‘serial monogamous’ marriage too all of these actors are present with the exception of a co-existing second wife. The rest of the equation remains the same.

Adultery Vs Polygamy

Why not do the right thing?  Instead of banning a legal polygamous marriage why not ban adultery? How many illegitimate children would have been born by such unions? As such relationships are secretive, both the woman and the child cannot claim any rights. In fact, most people reading this will know at least one person who ‘plays around’ outside his/her home.

Like in Sri Lanka, polygamy was an accepted practice in Thailand for centuries. It was banned in 1935 – after the 1932 Siamese Revolution. Today, Thailand leads the world list of countries that are most often cited as having illicit affairs. It is in the top spot at 56% of the population admitting for extra marital sex. It has a population of approximately 70 million. Do your math to figure out how many have extramarital sex. Thais were found to be the most unfaithful nationality in a 2012 survey of 29,000 people in 36 countries conducted by condom manufacturer Durex.

Adultery is not a crime in Sri Lanka. Under Section 19 (2) of the General Marriage Registration Ordinance, adultery subsequent to marriage can be a ground for divorce. However, it is a difficult allegation to prove.  No sane person will commit adultery publicly. It is done surreptitiously. Moreover, adultery can be committed with several partners. Therefore, the spouse will be left with no choice but to live the adulterous spouse because it cannot be proved. Spousal disloyalty can become deadly as they may be infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Especially, the HIV virus acquired through heterosexual extramarital affairs. The tragedy includes children, many of whom will be born with the virus.

In this sense, which is more dangerous to society adultery or polygamy? Which of these two is more beneficial for social and family life? In fact, more than banning polygamous marriages which are very few, we must focus on saving the first marriage from falling apart due to extra marital relationships, which is in greater proportion. Where should the emphasis lie? Which is the priority?


Banning polygamy is negative and reactionary thinking. It must be regulated through control and restrictive measures. To do this we have to think positively and creatively. Not merely following what other jurisdictions have done. Sri Lankan situation is unique and a local solution has to be developed. As proven above, restricting polygamy can lead to adulterous lifestyles and those supporting the ban will be responsible for creating such an immoral social environment. In Buddhist Cambodia, where polygamy is prohibited, partners/families outside of the legal marriage and the desertion of wives and children have become common social illnesses in that country. (Henry Kamm, Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land 1998, Arcade Books).

There will be an enforcement problem as has been reported in several jurisdictions. In Turkey, since the judicial system legally prohibits polygamy, some people prefer imam nikahi (an unofficial, religious marriage ceremony) for the second wife and sometimes hide this marriage from their first wives and society. Thereby forcing people to have secret marti relationships. In Brazil where polygamy is illegal, a practice called “polylove” is common. “Stable sexual relationships in which more than two people are involved, or “polylove” as its participants call it, is gradually gaining ground … where more and more unions of this kind are in evidence.” (Polygamy is Brazil’s latest contribution to sexual revolution, EFE Rio de Janeiro 11 Apr 2016). In West Africa six countries have civil codes that formally prohibit polygamy (Benin, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria) but legal restrictions are rarely enforced. (http://www.west-africa-brief.org/content /en/polygamy).

Although, polygamous marriages may be prohibited by civil law, they are widespread in practice. It is difficult to enforce laws prohibiting polygamy. This is clearly evidenced by empirical studies.


An issue has to be addressed objectively. Objectivity demands that one puts aside preconceived notions, prejudices, and social perceptions. It is only then can the advantages and disadvantages of a subject be evaluated scientifically, rationally and logically. Polygamy is no exception to this process. Banning Polygamy is an absolutely meaningless exercise. Instead of banning, it has to be regulated. The previous reports on reforms have articulated on this. As citizens, we expect the Cabinet of Ministers to act maturely; Not hastily take rash decisions. 

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