Forget polygamy. It’s the social system, stupid!
In recent weeks, to the horror of feminists, at least two Kenyan female members of parliament have made rousing calls for polygamy. One of them, Mombasa’s Woman Representative Asha Hussein asked no less than President Uhuru Kenyatta himself, to marry a second wife to “set an example to Kenyan men” on polygamy.
Many women — speaking out of social media — were outraged. There have been supportive noises for polygamy, mostly from men. And the jokes, with some tweeps wondering what First Lady Margaret Kenyatta thought of Asha Hussein’s entreaties to her husband to bring competition into their home.
This is not a Kenyan phenomenon. If you follow African media closely, every week or so these days, there is a female politician or community leader calling for polygamy, which had fallen out of fashion in recent decades.
So what the hell is going on? Some explanations are more obvious. From about 25 years ago, when the number of women in top political leadership and parliament in Africa started to rise, the first crop were warriors who had fought for women’s rights in a hostile patriarchal Africa dominated by reactionary powerful men.
Often, they were portrayed as outcasts, “bad women” who didn’t want to stay home, cook and mop and wait on their husbands, and who attacked “traditions that had served Africa well for centuries.”
They were anti-polygamy, seeing it as both oppressive to women, but also irrational and entrenching poverty: It allowed weasels with patched trousers to keep accumulating wives and children they couldn’t afford to look after.
Then something good happened — the number of women in leadership rose sharply. Soon, however, there were more positions for women in leadership than there were feminists to fill them. More politically traditional women politicians began to prosper, and soon very socially conservative ones started to be elected in waves that saw a broad rightward shift of voters, with rising homophobia, the explosion of evangelical churches, and what is being cast as the corrupting influence of globalisation and technology (internet, social media).
To be fair, couched in the language of polygamy, these women leaders are speaking to some serious issues. They correctly see a crisis of broken families. They see sexual permissiveness, and the spread of transactional sex, and how it’s reversing the gains made against HIV/ Aids. And mostly they see increased poverty.
They think that rich men can be part of the solution by sharing out their wealth among many wives and children. And that a polygamous family, whatever its shortcomings, still provides a better social support that makes for “better children” than the street or the market.
Still, those are really bad ways to solve the crisis of family, poverty, and sexual exploitation.
They are not sustainable, and are disempowering, making it harder for women to gain the power to negotiate their fair share of public goods.
These are better solved by public policy; social security payments to the needy; universal healthcare; elimination of corruption; and more efficient delivery of services by the state.
They are, however, still a welcome cry to help. Asking polygamists to help, though, is like calling the arsonist, not the fire brigade, to put out the fire.
Men are, however, still a welcome cry to help. But asking polygamists to help, is like calling the arsonist, not the fire brigade, to put out the fire
Charles Onyango-obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3