An old Malian proverb holds that “marriage is an obligation.” But it’s an obligation that comes with a choice: polygamy or monogamy.
Bruce Whitehouse, assistant professor of anthropology, is conducting research into marriage and its changing role in Mali, a country in northwestern Africa that borders Algeria and the Sahara Desert.
Whitehouse first visited and lived in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s, and his subsequent research on transnational migration has taken him back five times. It was on one of those trips that he came up with the idea of studying Malian marriage practices.
With funding from Lehigh’s Center for Global Islamic Studies and Office of International Affairs, Whitehouse took two undergraduate students—Sofía Covarrubias ’12 and Sarah Steinberg ’12—to Mali for one month last summer to conduct research into contemporary marriage in the capital city of Bamako.
Both students are proficient in French, the country’s official language.
“When Professor Whitehouse told me about the trip, I knew it was an opportunity I had to take,” said Steinberg. “I had learned about participant observation and read several ethnographies. Seeing how this type of research is carried out was a unique and exciting experience.”
An option for men, if women consent
In Mali, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim, men have the option of entering into a polygamous union. Under the law, they must state their preference for polygamy or monogamy when they marry.
Those who choose monogamy need the consent of their first wife later on to take other wives.
While many Muslim countries follow interpretations of Islamic law that allow a man to take up to four wives provided he can treat each equitably, several Muslim-majority countries—including Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tunisia and Turkey—prohibit it.
Mali has one of the world’s highest rates of polygamous marriage. At the same time, it is rapidly changing as Western ideas infiltrate society and education levels increase. Traditionally in Malian communities, it was a privilege of wealthy men to take multiple wives.
Yet today in Bamako, says Whitehouse, polygamy cuts across all socioeconomic distinctions, including education.
Whitehouse assumed that the practice of polygamy would be declining in a country that is modernizing. But that’s not what he and his research team found. After attending marriage ceremonies and interviewing college-educated men and women, they began to see an interesting pattern: Young, educated women increasingly say they won’t enter a polygamous marriage. Educated men, however, seem to want to keep that option open, explicitly as a source of leverage in marriage.
Lacking alternatives, more women opt to avoid a stigma
While women may not want to enter into a marriage where the husband maintains the option of polygamy, Whitehouse thinks they currently have few alternatives.
“If you don’t have a husband or father to support you, there is a stigma against being a single woman,” Whitehouse says.
Many young women feel a kind of desperation to find a husband, and will settle for polygamous unions even when they would prefer monogamous ones, he says. So instead of dying away, the practice of polygamy is being adapted to a new milieu: the urban, educated, modern setting of Bamako.
From the capital, “modernized” practices of polygamy—such as maintaining separate residences for each wife—have spread to Mali’s provincial towns and rural areas. Whitehouse says.
Whitehouse plans to carry out future research into Mali’s marriage dynamics, and he hopes to recruit more Lehigh undergraduate students to help him.
On Tuesday, Oct. 26, he and his students will share details of their study in a video presentation titled “Bamako Wedding Crashers: Reflections on Marriage, Polygamy and Modern Life in an African City.”
The event, part of the fall lecture series of the Center for Global Islamic Studies, will begin at 4:15 p.m. in Room 102 of Maginnes Hall.