Polyamorous and Islamophobic: we are the cool ones!

Many Anglophone polyamorous websites reject polygamy on the basis that it is anti-egalitarian. By doing so they construct a monstrous ‘other’ totally at odds with their apparently progressive values.

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.

Polyamory pride, San Francisco. Creative Commons

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

Shakira in concert. Mauricio Moreno. Flickr/Some rights reserved

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) 

1 Comment

  1. “Obviously targeted at Muslim migrants”, my ass. Anybody who doesn’t check something that easily verifiable, and leads with such a boneheaded mistake, can’t really be trusted on much else.

    Canada’s polygamy law was in fact targeted at Mormons, not Muslims. And the most recent controversy about that law was ALSO about Mormons, not Muslims. There are TRANSCRIPTS from the 1890 debate on the law. Muslims were not on the radar. There are also TRANSCRIPTS from the 2011 court case. Muslims get very little mention. And since the CPAA was founded for that court case, I think you can reliably assume that the Muslims weren’t exactly at the top of the CPAA’s collective mind when they wrote that, either.

    Just for the record, by the way, Mormon polygamy has zero continuity with any cultural practices of the 7th Century Middle East, or with anything else mentioned here. Joseph Smith pulled a divine command to have more wives out of his ass because he personally wanted more poontang. Maybe he was inspired by some crap in the Bible, but he sure wasn’t inspired by the surrounding, living cultural traditions… nor by anything to do with Islam. Now, what he DID get from the surrounding culture is that Mormon polygamy is patriarchal. It’s that way because everything at the time was patriarchal (including monogamy). Fun fact: the FLDS to this day believes that a man gets to personally choose which, if any, of his wives get to join him in Heaven.

    While we’re on the subject of facts and ass-pulls, by the way, what the hell does it mean to say that “there is a higher criminalization of women’s sexuality and non-binary identities”? Where? Under what circumstances? What criminal laws apply? What evidence do you have that they’re either facially discriminatory or enforced unequally? Difficulty: it’s a verifiable FACT that at least in the Western countries this is bitching about, the vast, overwhelming majority of people convicted of sex-related offenses are (cis) men (on edit: MAYBE not if you include prostitution. Which is not really about “criminalizing women’s sexuality”). And, by the way, what does that have to do with anything to begin with?

    And where is there any evidence WHATSOEVER that “even the polyamorous public, views it as completely acceptable that polygamous migrant families are divided at borders”? That sounds like total bullshit to me. Did somebody poll the “polyamorous public”? Is there any polyamory advocacy organization (with more than one or two members) that has said that? Or is it just more made up nonsense that the writer of this claptrap can use to feel superior?

    There’s also no evidence given that “the vast majority of polyamourous websites […] have a specific section clarifying that ‘we’ are not polygamous, because ‘we’ are egalitarian”. Did anybody COUNT? Is there a LIST of them?

    I suppose that one might actually be true. At least it kind of passes the laugh test… but in MY experience of polyamory advocates, MOST seem to take the word “polygamy” at face value and say that the “married” people among them ARE at least technically polygamous. They just don’t IDENTIFY THEMSELVES using “polygamous”. That’s because, in contexts where one is not arguing terminology with faux-precise sophomoric fools, the word “polygamous” CONNOTES patriarchal attitudes that those advocates aren’t about. They don’t call themselves “polygamous” very often just like you don’t see the FLDS calling themselves “polyamorous” very often. I guess Winston Blackmore might likewise admit he’s technically polyamorous, but I don’t think he throws the word around very much.

    Which, by the way, is what it seems to actually say on the CPAA web site that this nonsense tries to “gotcha”… if you bother to actually read all of the content of that site.

    Words aside, what, exactly do you want these Web sites to say instead? “We support a social system in which it is a strongly enforced norm that men can have multiple wives but women can’t have multiple husbands?”.

    Because that is, in fact, the only alternative available to them.

    The thesis here seems to be that it really IS OK for people to say “multiple wives for men, not multiple husbands for women”. It’s OK to enforce that with levels of coercion that dwarf anything any milquetoast Western “polyamorist” ever even DREAMS of. And anybody who tries to distance themselves from that is somehow dissing Islam, or perhaps isn’t “pure” enough to be allowed to separate themselves from extreme, systematic, socially enforced abuse.

    Apparently “we” (meaning the people who read and write this babble) are sophisticated enough to separate Islam from the preexisting polygamous traditions it regulates, or from the unrelated Mormon tradition that popped up later. But “they” (meaning polyamory advocates who’ve actually spent some time on the issue) are not able to make that distinction. Therefore they must be conjuring up Oriental monsters for themselves.

    You know what? Fuck obviously, overtly, violently patriarchal bullshit in ancient Eastern traditions. Fuck it in ancient Western traditions. Fuck it in Johnny-come-lately Mormon tradition. Fuck you for whitewashing it, and fuck you for equating it with not-even-really-identified stuff that doesn’t come remotely close in terms of actual effect on people’s actual lives.

    Furthermore, if there really is any potential common cause because “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”… then fuck you for poisoning that common cause with divisive, supercilious whining.