When two husbands are better than one

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am

De facto concubinage may be coming back into vogue among Chinese officials, despite official disapproval. But maybe the tables will be turned on male supremacy, even in China. What's sauce for the gander is also sauce for the goose.

A Malay journalist recently followed up a critique of polygamy in her country with an online article about happy, if undercover, polyandrous families in Malaysia. It was a tongue-in-cheek piece at a time when polygamy may be on the rise.

President Jacob Zuma of South Africa has three wives, The New York Times writes about successful polygamous marriage in Malaysia and, in many developed countries, its practise by Muslims and Mormons is rising. So maybe it is time to bring polyandry out of the closet and see whether it may actually often make more sense under modern conditions than polygamy - or even the serial monogamy so common in the US.

Polyandry has been quite a rare phenomenon, formally practised in Tibet, among some tribes in Southeast Asia and India, and informally elsewhere. Its rarity appears to be based on two principle factors. The first is women's need for economic security, which often means dependence on a man for income. The second is the importance of identifying fatherhood - necessary both for the emotional needs of men and because, in most societies, succession and inheritance are through the male line.

In today's developed societies - and increasingly even in Muslim developing ones like Iran - educational standards for women are as high or higher than for men. Hence, they are more capable of earning a living. This is increasing individual independence and women's ability to shape society to their advantage - starting with the choice of a partner and possibly extending to a desire to have more than one, whether informally or on a regular and formal basis.

Then there is the issue of parenthood. Women can not only decide if they want to conceive but, in cases where they have more than one partner, it is now easy for them to determine genetically who is the father. Fathers can be sure of their role in conception, too. These scientific advances undercut the social need for monogamy as well as the advantage of polygamy over polyandry.

It is already well established that it is not unusual for women to have affairs in the hope that a man they deem more suitable genetically will be the father of their child. Thus, in a polyandrous world, a woman in a strong economic position would be able to have one male as father and another as a more desirable bed partner - as is actually the case with men and polygamy. There is little evidence that, given economic and physical security, women are naturally more monogamous than men.

In China, there is an additional reason for polyandry to replace the tradition of the rich and powerful having many concubines. Male chauvinism has led to a surplus of males, now nearly 20 per cent in younger age groups. If they want to find female partners, many will have to settle for sharing.

The current reality is that, in societies with the highest levels of income and social equality - such as the Nordic countries, France and New Zealand - women are choosing when and with whom to have children. The result is that a high proportion are outside wedlock (50 per cent or more in those countries), and women often maintain more than one relationship. Birth rates are much higher than the abysmal levels seen in societies such as Hong Kong, Italy, the mainland or South Korea. In other words, a kind of informal polyandry is already widespread and is playing a key role in restoring birth rates to replacement levels.

So maybe the Malay world, which in pre-Muslim, pre-Christian times was noted for gender equality and a high degree of sexual freedom, will catch up and the tongue-in- cheek story become reality. And China will finally throw off Confucian sexism.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator