I was surprised and shocked by the criticisms levelled at the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the law banning polygamy.
Some critics saw this judgment as intruding on individual rights to liberty and privacy. Others saw it as a moral condemnation of unconventional unions and chastised Chief Justice Robert Bauman for elevating monogamous marriage to a “fundamental value.”
“What happened to swingers? What happened to people who are adulterous?” asked one academic. Others feared the ruling would lead to a return of the ban on gay marriages.
These assertions are ludicrous. The heart of the matter is whether polygamy respects the principle of equality between men and women – and it clearly doesn’t. Polygamy must be banned not because it is an “unconventional” practice, but because it is inherently degrading to women.
Gays or heterosexuals who exchange marriage vows are equal partners. Adultery involves no inequality at all: In Canada, married women are as free as married men to take a lover. Women can freely engage in various unconventional practices such as partner-swapping or group sex. Divorce and remarriage are accessible to women as well as men. Even though serious abuse can happen in all forms of sexual unions, including monogamous marriages, polygamy is a very specific case – the only one that is per se rooted in the inequality of women.
Incidentally, Chief Justice Bauman stated the obvious when he said that in the Western world at least, monogamous marriage has been “a fundamental value from the earliest of times.” In all liberal democracies, marriage is indeed defined as the union of two consenting adults. In the past, it meant the union of a man and a woman. The definition was recently modified in many countries, including Canada, to include gay marriage, but the concept of marriage hasn’t changed. It still involves no more than two adults. This doesn’t mean that other forms of sexual unions should be banned. For instance, a man (or a woman) can have multiple sexual partners simultaneously – but only marriage or common-law relationships are sanctioned by the state and regulated by the law and involve the obligation of financial support.
Polygamy is a “privilege” available to men only. The reason why polygamy historically prevailed over polyandry is that it conforms to the primitive animal model that allows the male to spread his sperm and have as many offspring as possible. The animal comparison is actually quite relevant, for polygamists’ wives are literally treated as cattle, with the richest man possessing the biggest herd. Women are reduced to the status of toys that can be tossed away and replaced at the whim of their husband. If this is not in itself degrading, I wonder what is.
Polygamy exists in Canada outside B.C.’s Bountiful sect, albeit in a clandestine mode. Consider the example of Afghan-born Mohammad Shafia, who along with his second wife and son, are on trial for the murder of his three daughters and his first wife Rona Amir Mohammad. Immigration officials were told Ms. Mohammad was his cousin, when in fact, she was legally the wife of Mr. Shafia. The court has heard how she was treated like a servant, physically mistreated and afraid to leave the dysfunctional house.
If the Supreme Court of Canada, which will eventually have to tackle the issue, were silly enough to ever declare polygamy constitutional, our country would become a choice destination for polygamist families. This would be a case of multiculturalism gone mad, really mad.
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