The present day law in many countries favours serial polygyny/polyandry, where you can be married to any one person at a given time after you come of legal age.
Yet polygamy both as polyandry and polygyny is practiced in small pockets all over the world.
The movie – The 19th Wife based on this book : http://shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/2009/07/19th-wife.html, presents the exploitative nature of polygyny and the ‘blind’ accepting faith of the sister-wives which allows their husbands and prophets to exploit them. In addition to having a large number of wives the husbands were also promiscuous with women not of their faith. (Some sect of Mormons).
a) Do I object to polygamy itself?
Sri Rama’s father, Dasaratha not only had three queens but three hundred wives (Valmiki Ramayanam in Sanskrit – Gita Press), all of whom were respected by Sri Rama and his brothers.
Sri Rama was an eka-patni-vrata, to such an extent that he created a golden statue of Sita Devi to use in his yagam, when his people forced him to forsake her. He did not marry another lady under any circumstances. I have heard that this is because he understood the pain his queen-mother Kausalya felt, when his father’s attentions turned to Kaikeyi. So he promised Sita that he would never take another wife. And of course Sitamma’s refusal to marry Ravana under phenomenal pressure is legendary!
In the Mahabharata, we have the eight wives of Sri Krishna and the five husbands of Draupadi. While Sri Krishna is ever-present with anyone who loves him, Draupadi’s husbands followed a strict protocol for not disturbing each other, when she was with a brother. When Arjuna needed to break the protocol to help a subject, he went on a 14 year exile. All her husbands had their own wives and Arjuna had the most. Draupadi’s co-wives did not have other husbands.
b) Or do I object to to exploitation?
Because, in the movie, many women were forced to be the n-th wives of old men, forced as much by their own mothers as by the men and the prophet and it was all very mean.
In an actual of bigamy that I know about, the elder wife was extremely unhappy, though I have no idea about the second wife. The elder wife’s children got the status and the younger wife got the attention.
I have also read a book by Danielle Steel called “the dating game” in which the perfect wife of years is cast aside (divorced) for a marriage with a younger woman. This lady of advanced years finds it hard to find a nice husband again till the end of the book where she lucks out. I know of a case in India, where the cast-aside-childless-middle-class-wife found it very hard in her advanced age and ill-health to even make a living. Of course among domestic help this is very common. In fact, much of the domestic help in urban India appears to consist of women abandoned by their husbands (often drunkards to boot), for other women. A Christian girl in a bus told me that some men (in Kerala) rent their wives to Dubai husbands for a year and get paid with a cash advance and gold ornaments at the end.
I think that I feel very sorry for women, who are exploited, because of their lack of education, lack of economic/social/legal status, lack of awareness of their rights. Actually I feel very sorry for anyone who is thus exploited. And I am not fond of systems which do everything to keep any section of society weak by force.
Of course just awareness alone does not help. They need to have courage to face the subsequent hardships and challenges posed by society. In the movie, two of the women have such courage. Other women of that sect are happy in their faith and the love of their sister-wives.
I think Gandhij’s solution was good. Empower women with education and jobs and make them socially aware. Then they are complete citizens and not just “wives”. It is a different kind of hardship from the protected-and/or-exploited kind of hardship. It isn’t easy, but it will help and it is a step forward. Education is very very important. I think that’s why there is so much emphasis by the government on education of the girl child.