In 2011 Canada’s main polyamorous association, the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association launched a campaign to protest a section of the Criminal Code that threatened to jail people involved in sexual relationships of more than two people: in other words relationships labeled as polygamous. In Canada, that much publicised ‘paradise’, there is also a legal document entitled ‘Zero Tolerance towards barbarous cultural practices’, which clearly prohibits simultaneous marriages, whether or not they are agreed by all parties.
Laws like these, obviously targeted at Muslim migrants, overlap directly with the values of postmodern polyamorous communities, generating a conflict of interests that is difficult to resolve.
Racists that we are, polygamy seems terrible to us. But as polyamorous people, unions of more than two seem great. How do we resolve such a conflict? The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association is clear: “We are NICE”, says its website, “negotiated, individualized, consensual, and egalitarian.” We are nice people, we are the cool ones. In a single sentence here they labelled the ones that are “not cool”, the bad ones, are the Others. The polygamists.
The East-West war machine has been growing in the past 2,500 years, if we believe the chronicles that place the beginning of the phantasmagoric confrontation in the battle of Thermopylae. And that war machine now has a new tool: polyamorous Islamophobia.
As far as I know, the word “polygamy” is neither Koranic nor is it used in Arabic. In this case, it’s unnecessary to be an expert: one just needs to go to 4:3 of the Qur’an and read the only reference to the subject:
If you fear that you will not be able to observe their rights with exact fairness when you marry the orphan girls (in your custody), you can marry, from among other women (who are permitted to you in marriage and) who seem good to you, two, or three, or four. However, if you fear that (in your marital obligations) you will not be able to observe justice among them, then content yourselves with only one, or the captives that your right hands possess. Doing so, it is more likely that you will not act rebelliously.
We’re talking about the seventh century of the Christian calendar: Islam does not invent the polygamous practice, but regulates it in an era where there are documented kings and leaders, including Christians, with literally thousands of wives.
“Polygamy” is a Greek word that was used until the second century to refer to serial monogamy. Later it disappears from European languages only to return in 1558 in French, and in 1590 in English. 800 years of Islam in Europe certainly gave enough space for the reappearance of the term, yet even the medieval chronicles of the Iberian Peninsula speak of “multiple marriages” among Muslims and I have not found the term “polygamy” anywhere.
In the sixteenth century, however, France and England began their colonial expeditions, later accompanied by anthropological science in the eighteenth century. In their search for monstrous alterity, the anthropologists of the time organize the possibilities of sexual relationships in a hierarchical manner and place the heterosexual nucleus with two people at its peak. From hereon this will be the “best” way to love, the most civilized form of relationship, the most just and appropriate. There are authors who even link monogamy and democracy and who have PhDs defending this indissoluble union of concepts.
Once the hierarchy is built, the inferior positions are filled: Muslim polygamy or group marriages are inferior forms of relationship, barbaric, savage forms. This same hierarchical distribution and its propaganda has been one of the tools to impose monogamy on European populations through repressive machineries such as the Inquisition, which persecuted and annihilated sexual, gender and reproductive dissidence, and declared heretical communities who wanted to include ritual sexuality in their practices, or who refused to obey the hegemonic gender norms that tried to relegate women to passive roles.
Less Foucault and more Shakira
Today a new sexual practice comes to join the hierarchy: polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy. But where to place this? The polyamorous hegemonic discourse has little hesitation in placing itself above monogamy. “We” are better because we are equitable, egalitarian, consensual and, above all, we are ethical. “We” are the best. The relationship between polyamory and ethics is very curious, because they are two terms that are defined reciprocally in these contexts. How do we know what polyamory is? Because it is ethical. How do we know what is ethical? Because it is polyamory. It’s a vicious circle.
The vast majority of polyamorous websites in Europe, the United States, Canada, etc. have a specific section clarifying that “we” are not polygamous, because “we” are egalitarian. That means that both men and women can be polyamorous.
All right. But what these websites forget is the aspect of biopolitics that governs our sexualities and our loves. And so, although polyamorous groups say that “men and women can do it equally”, the reality is that there is a higher criminalization of women’s sexuality and non-binary identities, as well as an exclusion of dissident sexualities that make cisgender men the biggest beneficiaries of this new revolution. We know that biopolitics exists, but it always exists for others. We are so sure of our “post-superiority” that we believe that reading Foucault makes us impervious to Shakira’s influence. Actually, biopolitics is precisely about Shakira, and not Foucault.
This discourse, then, is not only misleading, but generates a new kind of violence. “We”, the foucaults, we are cool ones, and “they” are the bad guys, the chauvinists. Thus, the general public, even the polyamorous public, views it as completely acceptable that polygamous migrant families are divided at borders, that only one wife is granted the status of legitimate wife, that the rest of the bonds in that group are not recognized by European legislation, and that this family can be divided, including sons and daughters. It also seems acceptable that one part of the family gets a residence permit and another part remains with no documents, because we consider ourselves to have total legitimacy to decide what is love and what is not, what a family is and what it is not, what an ethical relationship is and what it is not.
This indiscriminate accusation also contributes to a ‘face washing’ of normative polyamory, which reaffirms its stereotyped virtues against the evils of a cliché polygamy. All the while polyamorous people appear in television sets with our multiple partners explaining how wonderful it is to have a plural love life. Because “we” are the cool ones.
If we want our personal loves to be political, we have to make policy out of our experience. If something can bring the polyamoric experience to society, it is precisely to question these moralizing views about relationships and to build a polyamorous way of being in the world. That includes, undoubtedly, approaching traditions that for centuries have proposed multiple relationships and learning from their strategies, and also from resistance struggles against compulsory polygamy. The work of Islamic feminists against the abuses of Muslim patriarchy on issues of polygamy is a work very close to that of polyamorous feminists fed up with non-monogamous machismo. We cannot become a new tool for violence. Borders, both physical and emotional, are the places we have to look if we want to stop overcome emotional neoliberalism and ethnocentric war.
* This article was first published in Pikara Magazine. It was translated from Spanish by Marta Cillero.
* Lead image Gustav Klimt, The Virgin (1913)