Utah judge Clark Waddoups has struck down part of the law banning polygamy.
The court case was brought forth by the cast of the “Sister Wives” reality TV show, featuring four women (Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn) married to one husband, Kody Brown. They have 17 children together.
There is much that can be said about the whole case, including whether it is possibly part of a whole publicity ploy for the reality TV.
People more qualified than me have reflected on how this family’s particular Mormon background fits into larger parameters of the Mormon church.
I am interested in this case as a citizen, and as a Muslim. It is well known that the Qur’an permits polygamy, though far less known is that the Qur’anic context seems to be to find suitable families for orphaned girls. Needless to say, the common stereotype of a Muslim patriarch adding a second, third, or fourth trophy wife does not fit the model of orphaned girls in need of protection.
I have argued in my Memories of Muhammad book that it is possible that Muslims have in fact missed the ethical imperative of the Qur’an.
In the last few years, I have come to know families that come in all shapes and sizes. Some are the conventional model of one husband and one wife raising 2.5 children. Some are divorced parents who have failed in marriage but are working hard to succeed at being co-parents. Some are unmarried couples who are living together with or without children. And yes, I do know some families where one man is married to multiple women. In many of these cases, it has less to do with a man’s insatiable sexual appetite and more to do with the desire to provide a loving home for vulnerable single moms. In some cases it has been same-sex partners raising children lovingly, struggling in many of the same ways and succeeding in the same ways that other families do. Having confronted this plurality of families, I have come to terms with the fact that love is love: Families do really come in all shapes and sizes. What matters is whether people are loved and supported. And in particular where there are children, whether the children are raised with love and support. I have known abusive polygamous families, and of course abusive heterosexual monogamous couples. I have also known loving and strong monogamous families and loving and strong polygamous families. Love, abuse, trust, and betrayal don’t seem to know family type.
I am not blind to the potential abuses. The feminist critique that rightly points out how there is an inherent vulnerability in polygamous (technically, polygyny) marriages is not lost on me. And neither is the fact that almost without exception we are still talking about polygamous marriages of one husband and multiple wives, not one wife and multiple husbands. That asymmetry does speak to a still abiding double standard.
Nevertheless, my interest here is actually slightly different. It has less to do with arguing whether Islamic teachings permit or should not permit polygamy. It has to do with a quick reflection on the role of the state.
My observation is simply this: It is not the responsibility of the state to legislate what consenting adults can or cannot do provided there is no harm being inflicted on others. Let’s get the slippery slope argument out of the way here: key word is consenting adults. We are not talking about legalizing pedophilia (where by definition there is an asymmetry of power depriving the youth from legal consent) or bestiality. We are speaking about consenting adults.
It is for the same reason that in the past I have supported same-sex marriage. My argument was not based on whether same-sex marriage can be supported via Islamic teachings, but rather that the state has no business legislating a two-tiered model of marriage or a two-tiered model of citizenship.
This is part of why as a citizen, and as a Muslim, these cases interest me. It asks us to think in a more sophisticated model, to support possibilities that may or may not be in accordance with our own faith traditions, but are necessary in a model of citizenship where consenting adults have to have access to equal rights.