Marriage among the Igbo of Nigeria By :Celestine A. Obi

 iv) A word for polygyny

To begin with, all we are saying here is that monogyny being the approved and ideal, is in practice full of abuses. Polygyny has its good points but is not to be compared with monogamy. Polygyny is condemned on the grounds that it implies an outrage to the feelings of women. This may be true but only up to a point. For as we have already shown, Igbo women, do not detest the husband’s marrying other wives. As for the Igbo , so also the Kaggirs, the Ashanti, the New Guineans, and the Eskimos. An Akikuyu East African woman gave the following message to the women of Europe: “Tell them two things, one is that we never marry anyone we do not want to, and the other is that we like our husband to have as many wives as possible”. What this lady said applies very much in the case of the Igbo women as has been made clear earlier on. It applies too to the different peoples among whom polygyny is found. Consequently the opinion that it arouses feminine jealousy has to be modified. Feminine jealousy, it must be remembered, is much more a product of social condition than anything else. It is an effect, not a cause. It shows the woman’s desire not to part with the male on whom she depends for protection and economic support. It does not as a rule refer to the relations of the male with other females, as long as the said relations do not form any danger to the economic and love association. In many cases this does not happen. It can be argued that our contestation here applies only to women of the far distant past and not to those of today, since what used to be true of the females in the past need not necessarily be true of those of today. This is due to the fact that women today enjoy more social, economic liberty than their counterparts ever did in the past. It must be admitted however that the s o-called emancipation of women has not given to all of them economic independence. For one thing, women today with higher education and emancipation, still need protection from their husbands. For another, the number of working women that have attained economic independence is infinitesimally small considering them on a world basis. Again, polygyny is widely regarded as a moral virtue; to support as many fellow human beings as possible is not only a mark of wealth but a form of philanthropy. In its absence, very many women would be forced to live a miserable single life. It is not uncommon to read from some European anthropologists and sociologists that polygyny is lent among primitive or uncultured peoples while they speak of monogamy as a mark of civilization. 

However the use of the term primitive-and-uncultured is unfortunate. It seems to mean that there is only one culture in the entire world – this is contrary to the fact. This one culture would of course be the one in which monogamous kind of marriage is said to predominate. However, even in Europe it has been said that real monogamous marriage has never existed. Of the Romans and the Greeks it has been observed that while their marriage institution was monogamous, they could scarcely ever be said to be monogamous in their sex relations. The more appropriate term to be used in this context should be “successive polygyny”. in the civilised world today where divorce and exchange of wives are found to be of frequent occurrence the marriage institution can not be said to be really monogamous. For, a man who begins by having one wife that he can divorce for another at any time, is no more monogamous than an unmarried person is a celibate. Consequently, estimates as to the extent of polygyny in a given society can be very deceptive. In fact, it appears better to say that it is the poor man that is a monogamist all over the world. But it must be moreover remembered that the prohibition of polygyny, which was said to be natural and to be met with among all nation s in a state of ‘refinement’, was actually promulgated for the first time in any part of the world in the code of Justinian in the sixth century. What must have happened even among the civilised or cultured peoples. before the promulgation of his law could be anybody’s guess. Again it must not be forgotten that in any polygynous society most of the men have one wife at any one given time, although they may later take two or more. In fact, as Prof. Grottanelli said “Theoretically vast majority of peoples are polygynous but the rule in such societies is permissive polygyny and actual monogamy. _________________________________

(Taken from unpublished doctoral thesis submitted to Pontifical Urban University, Rome (1970) by Celestine A. Obi)

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