Benefits, Britain, Culture, Immigration, Islam, Marriage, Polygamy, World, Yemen

Just the two of us? Polygamy in the UK

Say no to polygamy

Polygamy is harmful to women as well as society

It is a little known fact that, while technically illegal in Britain, bigamous and polygamous marriages exist. State benefits make provisions for those in bigamous and polygamous marriages. If we continue to make concessions to other cultures’ illegal marital practices, there will be unintended consequences for our society that even liberals and cultural relatives will not enjoy. Olivia Jackson investigates.

A leaked paper on the Government’s draft integration strategy, publicised by Conservative MP Paul Goodman, hints at the possible registration of polygamous marriage in Britain. Although the Department for Communities and Local Government quickly denied suggestions that it was considering legalising such marriages, it did not mention their registration, which was the subject of the paper.

The Integration and Tolerance Working Group paper (“Creating the conditions for integration”) points out that because religious marriage is not automatically recognised by the State, those whose spouse subsequently enters a second or third marriage are unprotected. The suggestion is to register religious marriages with civil authorities – although it is ambiguous about whether this is in recognition of polygamous marriage or to prevent it (as authorities could identify who was already married).

The policies surrounding this issue are conflicting. On one hand, bigamy is illegal in Britain. Anyone immigrating to this country can only bring in one spouse. On the other hand, a 2007 government review allows recognition of polygamous marriages which take place in countries where they are legal – although no changes to the law were made. The DWP allows for state benefits not just for husband and wife, but “for claimant and first spouse in polygamous marriage” and “additional amount for additional spouse”.

The problems connected to this run deeper than simply one of ‘that’s not what we do here.’  Marital liberals and cultural relativists, who argue that the structure of a marriage is up to those within it, tend to forget that this opens the door to things which even they may balk at:

If we take a glance at some of the nations which allow polygamous marriage, we find several of these nations also have horrifyingly low ages at which marriage is allowed and appalling attitudes towards women (Yemen, for example, has no lower age limit at which girls can marry). Are we to allow child marriage too, if people want it? How about group marriage?

Polygamous marriage is also almost never polyandrous, prompting concern about its equality for women. Would registering such marriages do much for those the Tolerance Working Group paper refers to as ‘unprotected,’ i.e. wives having to share their husband with younger models, or subsequent wives who find themselves at the bottom of a wifely hierarchy. Registration may give legal protection, but it cannot protect against family dynamics even in monogamous marriages.

Even if the leaked paper was seeking to reduce polygamous marriage, what is to stop someone registering their first marriage, then registering a divorce with the state (but not a religious divorce) and remarrying, while continuing to live with the first spouse in a polygamous context?

Before the 2007 review, the Government estimated there were around 1,000 polygamous marriages in the UK. The actual number of individuals involved was not specified. But given that many of these marriages take place in relatively closed communities and are, of course, not registered, it is hard to know.

With numbers like this, the consequences are hardly likely to be catastrophic for State finances or immigration, but when the Government is trying to make cuts to both, it is perhaps worth looking at practices which are anyway illegal in Britain.

It could also be argued, given that this practice is largely restricted to Muslims (and Mormons), allowing immigration and multiple benefits on this basis is discriminatory against those who do not practice polygamy. Islam does not force men to take multiple wives, and indeed only a minority do. Denying someone polygamous marriage does not deny them their right to any family life at all. So why endorse it in Britain?

Culture is not a fixed entity: our own has adapted and changed drastically in the past 50 years, for better and for worse. Are we now to adapt increasingly to polygamous marriage? To legally recognise these marriages would not protect the spouses within them however one reads the meaning of the text, but it would be yet another example of allowing cultural practices and ‘rights’ to trump the best interests of women and the British State.

About Olivia Jackson

Olivia Jackson has spent 12 years working in the international NGO sector as an advocate, filmmaker and writer. She is both a Conservative and a ‘wet’, a Christian and a feminist. She believes in personal responsibility and that a large state means weaker communities. Currently undertaking a Masters of Law, her primary focus is on human rights and international development.


One thought on “Just the two of us? Polygamy in the UK

  1. Great article. There needs to be more of a principled stance against exported bigotry.

    Posted by Danieldeanwillis | July 30, 2011, 6:48 pm

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