I've mentioned before on this blog, I come from Mormon stock - from the perspective of my family history, then, the polygamy in 'So Long a Letter' did not have an exotic factor to it for me. My birth name is Roper, and the first of the Ropers in America was a woman who crossed the Atlantic from Great Britain in order to pull a handcart across the American prairies to Utah, where she was the plural wife of a Mormon man there. In fact, the only thing I know about this plural marriage was that she didn't like the way the man treated her with the other wives, much like the characters in Ba's book.
Polygamy, when growing up was (albeit only historically) a given to me. It was something people used to do - and not in the sense of ancient Israel (in fact, the whole Abraham and Hagar thing has always struck me as probably a somewhat skewed account, and not a great indication of Abraham's good virtues). There are echoes of this polygamy even now: no, to be perfectly clear, Mormon men are no longer allowed to marry multiple wives, but, for instance, a man can, if he is widowed (and even if he's divorced in some cases) be sealed to a second wife for time and eternity, whereas a woman cannot - because men can have multiple wives in heaven, while women can have 1 (or, in some sense, part of 1) husband. This struck me as unfair, but then, marriage in general struck me as unfair to one party or the other, usually.
Because the pioneers who practiced polygamy are the mythic great fathers of the Mormon stock, though, it was remarkably difficult to get a real approximation of what it must have actually FELT like to be a person in a polygamous household. I always wanted to know, both the practical details (so, do the women all have seperate bedrooms? Did all the wives and the one husband - in my very chaste childhood image - just sleep in one really wide bed?), and the more profound ones (if you're a multiple wife, do you feel married to the other wife, too? Do you feel like sisters? Rivals?). In that sense the book was deeply interesting - though I do not know that the logistics of the multiple marriage in Islamic Africa were the same as Utah.
The interesting aspect, to me though, is this: so, the relationships in this book were unhealthy, but is it possible to have a healthy polygamous relationship? And what would that feel like? Maybe if it was a true menage a trois, emotionally and/or physically, instead of a man who has two women, who both have one man. Or maybe that would make it worse. Or maybe if women had more rights in the culture. At some level, though, one is left to ask, is a man being allowed multiple wives a bad thing for women? Does it make women 'disposable' without any social stigma, the way that occurs in the book, and that seems to have occurred to my ancestor?
In this sense, one sees perhaps an argument for the laws in the United States that outlaw polygamy. And we ARE Afraid of polygamy here! (I don't know how this is in, say, Europe, I'd be interested to hear in the comments?) In fact, when people object to Gay Marriage, one of the arguments is that it would lead to a slippery slope where someday we'd have to legalize polygamy - and frankly, any practice that is used as an example of somethign scarier than Gay Marriage for Americans must be very scary indeed. And, it's worth pointing out, that what examples there IS of polygamy that make it into the news, these days, are not pleasant ones - generally religious cults (particularly fundamentalist Mormon splinters). Many of these communities seem to have problems with yougn girls being wedded off at a language that would be child sexual abuse, and women certainly don't seem to be respected - though even here, the vision we get of the communities is awfully skewed by the OHMIGAWD, and THEY TOTALLY HAVE MORE THAN ONE LADY TO SLEEP WITH shock coverage of the news. So, who knows.
So, then the question is this: does an anti-bigamy law protect anyone? And is it an ethical law to have? I don't know. It's not as if, for instance, we ban people from preaching from the Pauline Epistles, which are certainly bad for women in parts - of course not, people have the right to believe what they like. After all, it only hurts them, right?
Only, it doesn't. IT affects those people's children, if nothing else, no? So, at what point should we legislate to protect the auxilliary people?
So, look at the question from a different direction: many radical feminists, particularly on the left, felt like 'normal' marriage was damaging to women, in the precise same way that we think of polygamy, now. There argument isn't even an awful one - it's one I can see the merits of. So, if marriage could be illustrated to be as damaging to society as polygamy, should it be illegalized? And how woudl you even measure that? At some level, I'm inclined to one of two possible end scenarios.
First, we could simply legalize any relationship between consenting adults. Yes, this would be complex. Yes, many forms woudl have to be rewritten. But, at some level, we let people have sex with whoever they want anyway, so if three people want to make a home together, under what right do we prevent them from doing so? The implications for US law are complex - how do you file taxes? But in a sense, this complexity exists now, it is simply hidden. IF three people are polyamorous, and truly love each other equally, now, if one member dies, then only of the remaining partners retains the protection of US law for the same things that homosexuals lack now - and if nothign else, bringing polygamy out of the shadows would, I would think, allow any healthy forms of it to flourish - in the shadows, only sickness grows.
The other option, of course, would be to stop legislating marriage and partnership, altogether. Why not? At some level, it's rather odd that we DO stick our nose into it as a country. IF two people want to sign a contract with each other not to diddle anyone but each other, perhaps we as a coutnry shouldn't spend our energy enforcing this contract - considering its impossible to enforce fairly, anyway. Then, people could simply make whatever agreements they like, as long as noone is put in a situation of nonconsent.
Both of these solutions have problems - but both point out, to me, that there is a lot more sexual heterogeneity in the world than the rest of us are willing to admit - polygamy in the traditional sense, is simply the most obvious form. I'd love to hear what other people think: why is polygamy so scary? Are the problems in it problems of polygamy or society at large? And how SHOULD it be treated by society?