Kenya has just passed a new law governing marriage. While Americans are wrestling with the idea of same-sex marriage, Kenyans have made it very clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, or, more accurately, between a man and as many women as he can wed.
Kenya has a long cultural tradition of plural marriage, but thanks to the British Empire and its aftermath, that tradition was not legally acknowledged until now. President Uhuru Kenyatta stated, “The Marriage Act 2014 defines various types of marriages including monogamous, polygamous, customary, Christian, Islamic and Hindu marriages.”
If you think the women of Kenya are completely against the bill, well, think again. Christine Ochieng, director of the Federation of Women Lawyers there, said, “Finally all marriages are being treated equally. All marriages will be issued with marriage certificates, including customary marriages. Before this, customary marriages were treated as inferior.” Some estimates are that 80 percent of Kenyan marriages are of the customary variety. Women who had been married in that way have few rights to property and other legal protections in the event of divorce, abandonment or widowhood.
Ochieng did state, though, “What we are not happy about is that now a man can marry another wife or wives without the consent of the first wife.” When the bill passed, female MPs stormed out of the parliament, largely enraged by the removal of a clause that would allow the first wife to veto the husband’s choice of a second wife. “We know that men are afraid of women’s tongues more than anything else,” female legislator Soipan Tuya told fellow MPs. I don’t agree — small pox is marginally worse.
“Any time a man comes home with a woman, that would be assumed to be a second or third wife,” said Samuel Chepkong’a, chairman of the justice and legal affairs committee. “Under customary law, women or wives you have married do not need to be told when you’re coming home with a second or third wife. Any lady you bring home is your wife.”
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting suggested the chairman wasn’t completely accurate, writing, “Mary Wangare, who is in her eighties and lives in the town of Othaya in central Kenya, thinks people are making too much fuss. In her community, it is the norm rather than the exception for men to have multiple wives.” Wangare told IWPR, “Among the traditional Kikuyu, it’s the wife who looks for a second wife for her husband. This is because it is a woman’s duty to till land while men [traditionally] herd cattle and go for war and raids. When the task of tilling land becomes too much, a Kikuyu woman looks for a co-wife to help her till the land.”
Lenah Kinyua, a hairdresser in Nairobi, told the Institute, “Men want more women so they can have more sex. In these tough economic times, men should focus on marrying one woman and being contented with her. Bringing in a second wife spoils the whole marriage setting plus the good relationship shared initially by the couple.”
Meanwhile, there are a few voices in Kenya who wonder why polyandry, a woman married to many men, was not legalized.
Now, I am hardly an expert on Africa, Kenyan culture nor other people’s sex lives. But I do have a few observations:
First, Chairman Chepkong’a is talking so much smickety smack here about bringing ladies home to your wife that I expect he is either a bachelor, divorced or about to be divorced. I’ve been with the same woman for 22 years (and I married up), and we don’t always agree on how things will be. But I know enough to consult her on important matters — I have trouble sleeping with one eye open.
Second, if my wife ever came home with a “co-wife” to help with the chores, I wouldn’t think, “Oh goody, more sex!” I would think, “Oh shit, someone else to keep happy.” And even if it weren’t an alliance against me (although I would presume that was the whole point until otherwise proved), the last thing any man with any sense wants to do is get in the middle of a fight between two women. And at some point, they’re going to fight.
Third, while women may want multiple partners as much as men, they certainly don’t want to have to put up with more than one man asking, “Honey, where do we keep the paper towels?” or, “Have you seen my [insert random noun here]?” And if one pair of dirty socks in the middle of the floor sets a woman off, there aren’t words to describe the response to two or three such pairs.
Finally, the law says that a woman gets half of the property in a divorce, up from 30 percent in many cases. But if there are three wives, and they all get a divorce, do they get equal shares, or does the man have to pay out 150 percent of what he owns?
In the end, I don’t think that polygamy and polyandry should be against the law — more than one spouse seems to be punishment enough.