26 March 2014

Rwanda: You Want Another Wife? Allow Her Another Husband


On the outside looking in, all I can say is that it had been an interesting couple of days in good ol' East Africa. We've had a media-manufactured Twitter scandal at home, bans on jogging in Bujumbura and stories of political rivalries stewing in Uganda. But in terms of sheer 'interestingness', nothing beats what is coming out of Kenya with the polygamy bill.

The bills that was passed on Thursday, attempts to formalise customary law, which allows marriage with more than one spouse. While the entire bill was courting controversy from the get go, the clause that ignited the most ire was one that stated that a man didn't have to inform his wife that he intended to bring a second lady home.

The female MP's were furious and stormed out of the chambers. Explaining their anger, MP Soipan Tuya said: "We know that men are afraid of women's tongues more than anything else. But at the end of the day, if you are the man of the house, and you choose to bring on another party - and they may be two or three - I think it behoves you to be man enough to agree that your wife and family should know".

MP Samuel Chepkong'a, chairman of the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee, responded saying: "Under customary law, women or wives you have married do not need to be told when you're coming home with a second or third wife. Any lady you bring home is your wife".

Looking at the exchanges, I came to the realisation that none of these MPs were arguing against polygamy per se, but rather whether the first wife has a right to know that her husband was planning to bring wife number two.

They all seemed to agree with MP Junet Mohammed, who said: "When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way, and a third wife... this is Africa".

I feel that their debate was less about acknowledging our cultural heritage and more about ensuring male supremacy in the guise of 'African-ness'. What the proponents of our African 'culture' (as if it is one homogenous thing) want us to believe is that polygamous relationships are a type of social service that men give women in order to, first of all, protect and cater for their wellbeing. And secondly, to keep them away from the dreaded "S" word. Spinsterhood.

While I can acknowledge that such an arrangement was necessary in the past, especially because all the means of production rested in the hands of men, I think it is an archaic arrangement in this day and age. Today, I doubt whether any young girl imagines becoming someone's third wife, no matter how rich and powerful he is.

In my opinion, polygamy is simply a vestige of our agrarian, patriarchal pre-colonial past.

But, if we insist on continuing it today, I think we need to be fair about it. What irks me with the Bill is that it explicitly bans women from getting married to multiple men. That is wrong.

I'm of the view that if you make laws, they must cut across all strata. Why shouldn't women be allowed to marry as many men as they like? Is it unAfrican?

Well, actually no. The Igbo people allowed a woman to get married to multiple men (a practice known sociologically as polyandry) and so did the Lele people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to cultural anthropologists, this type of marriage structure was extremely predominating in communities that were matriarchal in nature i.e. those where wealth and power emanated from the mother. Rwanda was, and is, still extremely patriarchal.

Truth be told, I am very liberal when it comes to marriage. I believe that it is something that only couple (s) should define. 'Normal' marriage? Great. Gay marriage? I'm all for it. Polygamy? Sure. Polyandry? Why not?

As long as it works for the people in it, marriage, as legal institution, should be open to whoever wants in. As long as they're consenting adults, who are we to tell them what they can and cannot do to become happy? All I ask is that whatever rules are enacted they are fair to both sexes.

Twitter @sannykigali

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