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The Global Persecution of Women


”France: France's polygamy problem,” Women in the Middle East, No. 45, Nov.-Dec. 2006.

Between 150,000 and 400,000 people live in polygamous households in France, in which a man is married to more than one woman. The French state is trying to change the situation -- with mixed results. The government argues that living in polygamy prevents immigrants from becoming integrated into French society and that it goes against the principles of gender equality enshrined in the constitution.

Polygamy was made illegal in France in 1993. Those who still live in polygamy have either been doing so since before the law was passed or they married abroad.

Though polygamy isn't very common in the northern Paris suburb of Cergy, most people in the African community there seem to know at least one polygamous family, usually with roots in Mali. The French authorities employ a strategy they call "de-cohabitation" to reduce the numbers of polygamous households. It involves social workers helping second and third wives move into separate apartments with their children, breaking up the polygamous arrangement.

The government offers women large, subsidized apartments to encourage them to leave polygamous families. They may also receive the 10-year-residence permits issued to other foreign residents. Polygamous families are only eligible for permits that must be renewed every year, which can make it difficult to find a job or travel internationally.

There are no official national statistics on the number of polygamous families who have been separated. But a government agency that oversees housing in the Paris region says that of the roughly 500 families known to be living in polygamy in the area, only 81 women have moved out in the past five years, and 24 of them have divorced their husbands. Many more polygamous families are thought to be living in the shadows.

There's now a growing sense that France's current policy isn't working, and that the country needs to take a tougher stance if it wants polygamy to become a thing of the past.


Nick Read, ”The hidden wives of Turkey,” BBC News, 30 Auig. 2005.

The villages of south-east Anatolia, in the corner of Turkey that borders Iraq and Syria, are bleak, hauntingly beautiful places that do not give up their secrets lightly.

It is part of what Kurds claim as their homeland, where years of violent struggle between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government have left more than 30,000 killed.

The government outlawed the practice of polygamy nearly a century ago. But Islamic custom can allow men to take up to four wives.

In this devoutly Muslim region, it is estimated that nearly a quarter of all marriages are polygamous.

Men like 32-year-old Resat Yagdi regard it as their birthright. He is a part-time electrician and onion farmer, with a beautiful wife and three children, one just a week old.

But despite these blessings, he is determined to take a second wife to enhance his prosperity and prestige in the village.

Price of a bride

He has chosen a girl who lives virtually next door - Ayse Aymaz - who is eight years his junior.

But while preparing to marry Ayse, he soon learned that love comes at a price.

To win Ayse's hand, first Resat must build her a new home, and pay her parents a substantial bride price. By the time he marries, he will be £18,000 out of pocket.

But after what Resat considered to be an unhappy first marriage, it is a price worth paying. He says: "Ayse is so feminine. She is everything I've ever dreamt of. She's my perfect type."

For Resat's 22-year-old sister, Melihat, the clock is ticking.

Her marriage will soon be arranged by her father, who has three wives himself, and her price negotiated with the groom's family.

Melihat knows she is regarded purely as an economic asset: "They sell girls like animals; we're not treated as human beings."

Some are sold into marriage as young as 12 years old. Girls who run away are simply killed, in what are euphemistically called "honour" killings.

Unsurprisingly there are few prepared to speak out against these practices.

One of the few campaigners, Ayla Sumbul, teaches women to read and write in the slums of one of Anatolia's largest cities, Sanliurfa.

She spells out the consequences for wives who do not comply: "If the first wife complains then she gets beaten, or the husband punishes her and the children by not providing them with food. She becomes a prisoner."

Ayla has recently uncovered a disturbing side effect of polygamy and inbreeding.

'A quiet affair'

Repeated intermarrying within families, typically between first and second cousins, has produced abnormally high rates of children with Downs Syndrome and Mediterranean anaemia.

Ayse is Resat's cousin, but nobody in his village sees anything wrong with it.

But because polygamy is illegal, Resat has to keep his wedding a quiet affair.

So quiet that the bride's family is not invited. Nor in fact is the bride present at the ceremony.

She is kept veiled in the bedroom, while a local Imam arrives to recite all the necessary Koranic verses in the presence of the groom and two male witnesses.

Within two days of the wedding and marriage being consummated, Ayse is put to work in Resat's onion fields.

From a Western perspective, polygamy appears to be little better than slavery.

In the brutal, feudal world of south-east Anatolia, women are bought and sold for sex, for free labour and men's pride.

And for Ayse, there will be no honeymoon. Yet she has no regrets: "I don't care whether he's penniless or not. It's not important to me what he's worth. It's all because I love him."

Polygamy is illegal in Turkey, but in practice it is allowed to continue. In remote areas like this, Turkey risks antagonising Kurdish separatists by intervening in tradition and customs.

But as Turkey seeks to negotiate entry into the European Union, polygamy and other human rights issues are likely to attract greater international attention.

United States

”Husband and wives,” Guardian, 21 Nov. 2006.

Over the years a blind eye has been turned to the practice of polygamy in the United States. But the trial of a Fundamentalist Mormon for assisting in the rape of a minor could change all that. Ed Pilkington visits Utah and uncovers a closed world of 'sisterwives', underage marriages and banished teenagers.

Of all the difficult public relations campaigns in the world, this must be among the toughest: to sell polygamy, the practice of keeping more than one wife by one man, as a deeply Christian, rewarding activity that frees the women as much as it forwards the spiritual standing of the man.

But that is the challenge Anne Wilde has taken up, as a sort of unofficial spokeswoman for the polygamists of Utah. There is a mystery to why this woman should be devoting herself to the cause when she has no apparent personal connection to polygamy, but we will come to that later. For now, she is sitting in her kitchen in Salt Lake City, explaining why taking multiple wives - "sisterwives" - is a necessary prerequisite for reaching the highest level of Heaven.

Wilde's purpose is made particularly tough because polygamy gets a consistently bad press, fuelled by events in some polygamist communities that appear to be anything but celestial. Today, the "Prophet" of a polygamist community in Utah, Warren Jeffs, will be brought handcuffed into court and the evidence presented in public for the first time. He is charged with assisting the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl, who had allegedly been forced into a spiritual marriage with her cousin. The girl was said by prosecutors to have been ordered to "multiply and replenish the earth" - in other words, procreate - or risk eternal damnation.

Jeffs was the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a group that detractors call a cult, which is concentrated in Hilldale, a small town straddling the southern Utah border with Arizona. His lawyers will argue that to commit him to trial would be to continue the persecution Utah's polygamists have suffered since the late 19th century.

To a degree, Wilde would agree with that. As one of the leading historians of the practice, she describes how it has its roots in the early days of Mormonism, the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is the dominant religion in Utah. It was the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, who first revealed the principle of celestial - or plural - marriage in the 1830s.

It was persecution, says Wilde, that forced the Mormons to drop polygamy in the 1890s when the federal US government gave them an ultimatum: end its practice or forfeit all your lands. The church elders did as they were told and in return were rewarded with the granting of statehood to Utah in 1896.

But there were many refuseniks, who were driven underground, excommunicated by their own church. Though the Mormons deny any connection now to the polygamists, the latter continue to claim a common ancestry, calling themselves Fundamentalist Mormons, much to the annoyance of the official church.

The polygamists have also been regularly targeted by the civil authorities. In 1935, polygamy was made a crime in Utah, punishable to this day with five years in prison. But at this point Wilde's account and that of Jeffs' lawyers would probably part. She believes that in recent years there has been a thawing of relations between the civil authorities and Utah's polygamists. In an unwritten pact, the state's attorney general has made it clear that if they keep the law in all other respects, the felony of polygamy will be overlooked.

So it is no coincidence that Jeffs is being prosecuted for assisting the statutory rape of an underage girl, rather than for the many plural marriages he has presided over. Other recent prosecutions of Hilldale residents have also focused on underage sex and on the widespread abuse of state benefits to support plural wives.

I talked to several teenagers who fled Hilldale and they too said that they wanted to escape not because of polygamy per se but because of the increasingly harsh and bizarre way in which Jeffs allegedly ruled over them. Take Joe, a keen, bright-eyed 18-year-old who left the town two years ago and is now living in Salt Lake City. Using a false name as he hopes to remain in contact with his parents, he recalls a childhood with his mothers and 31 brothers and sisters where the two families lived happily in the same house. "Things were good. But then every one of us felt the change."

The change happened when Jeffs took over as leader, or Prophet, when his father died in 2002. Before the change the rules were stringent, but afterwards they became strangulating: no more hiking in the countryside, bicycles, swimsuits or computers. Jeffs forbade T-shirts and bright colours, particularly red, the colour of the devil (an irony as he was caught wearing a T-shirt and driving a bright red car). Long underwear and long shirtsleeves and trousers had to be worn at all times, buttons done up. Pop music was out, to be replaced by tapes of Jeffs preaching.

Fawn Broadbend ran away almost three years ago, when she was 16, and now also lives in Salt Lake City. She remembers before she left being told not to laugh, but that was not why she fled Hilldale. At the age of 14 her name was added by her father to the "joy book", a list allegedly collated by Jeffs of young girls whose parents believed they were ready to be put out to marriage, often with a husband who already had one or several other wives. When Broadbend learned that she was in the book, she resisted: her elder sister had become the 23rd wife of a polygamist with 106 children in Bountiful, an outpost of the faith in British Columbia, Canada, and she didn't want that for herself.

In January 2004, fearing that she could be married off with just 15 minutes' notice, as had happened to others in the community, Broadbend ran. The day before had also proved to be the final straw for her when Jeffs had called an extraordinary meeting of townspeople. In front of a crowd of 1,500, he read out a list of 21 of the community's fathers, telling them they had sinned but without telling them why, and ordering them to leave immediately. All 21 men packed their bags and were gone that night. Most of them are still expelled from the town, separated from their wives and children, frantically trying to work out which sins they must repent.

Many teenaged boys were also turfed out of the community. Chuck, also a false name, is 15. Last December he was called in to a meeting of church leaders in Hilldale and told he had broken the rules by wearing T-shirts and going to the cinema. He was told to leave by the following morning. Diversity, a group in Salt Lake City that works with teenagers thrown out of Hilldale - the Lost Boys, as they are known locally - puts their number at up to 1,000.

At its most extreme, the reign of Jeffs saw families torn apart at his whim. Carl Holm, 42, was ostracised by the church elders several years ago for having married outside the religion, and now lives in Salt Lake City. His sister is one of more than 40 women in Hilldale believed to be married to Warren Jeffs (he is said to have more than 60 children). Two other sisters were married to the same man - a common practice in Hilldale - until Jeffs stepped in and ordained that one of the sisters was no longer to be married. Again, without being told her sin, she was banished from the family. All her children were "reassigned" to the other sister.

Broken families, kids cast asunder, father wrenched from son, sisterwife from sisterwife: there is little sympathy for Jeffs from those who were forced out. "I'd like to see him behind bars," says Joe, now dressed freely in T-shirt and jeans. Why? "The way I see it, God is a good person. He would not do those things to families."

So what of the polygamists themselves? What do they think of the prosecution of Jeffs and of the future of their way of life? Utah polygamists are notoriously secretive. The community of Hilldale has been closed to the outside world for months as Jeffs issued an edict before he went on the run that excluded contact with outsiders. I made approaches to several other groups and churches but no one wanted to talk.

And that is how I ended up in the kitchen of Anne Wilde. She is an expert on Utah polygamy who has co-authored one of the most informative books on the subject, Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage. Going to see her would, in the absence of actual polygamists who would talk, at least give me the context.

I asked her why, as someone with no personal connection to the practice, she had written such a book. Oh, but she had, she said. For 33 years she had "lived the principle" within the independent tradition - a loose affiliation of men and women who see themselves as being more moderate and reasonable than the Hilldale community - the acceptable face of polygamy. She was the second wife of Ogden Kraut, who also wrote about the religion. There is no mention of that in her book, she explained, because she feared prosecution, but since her husband's death four years ago she has gradually come out, revealing her unconventional marital arrangements for the first time to many of her family, some of whom had ostracised her.

She wouldn't say how many sisterwives she had had, other than "a few", all but one of whom were now dead. She had been unable to have children with Kraut so instead they had written books together on polygamy.

She says that Kraut treated all his wives fairly, not equally, as one wife might be more needy than another. The fact that he was with her only periodically meant that she had more freedom, she says, "as there were others around to cook his food and wash his clothes". She keeps stressing that she feels that being a polygamist gave her more, not less, independence as a woman; and although her husband was a patriarch, part of his role as head of the family was to treat his wives with respect.

Jeffs does not fit into that definition. His mistake, she believes, was to try to find utopia on Earth where perfection is unattainable. But she says that the unhappy experiences of the few in Hilldale should not be used to discredit the many. We are back where we began, to Wilde's public relations campaign for a most unfashionable creed. "I want you to know, I was totally happy in it. Ogden and I got on absolutely beautifully. We had 33 years of glorious, loving marriage."

Polygamy as liberation - is it really time to rewrite the annals of feminism? Not at all, says Broadbend. Her upbringing and education, what little she had of it, was all about female subservience. Even before Jeffs came on the scene she was being taught her role in life: "Girls are put on Earth to obey the man who is superior. We are here to bear children for him and to do his bidding. You do what your man says, and you certainly do not question him. If I had stayed I would have had no say at all over my own life."

Anne Wilde's job as public relations consultant has some way to go.

”The life of a 'sisterwife,'” Guardian, 21 Nov. 2006.

'We don't get very much actual sex'

Maggi, who belongs to a Mississippi-based group of practising polygamists, wrote this account in an internet chatroom of her life as a "sisterwife" in one of the more extreme polygamist groups

We all live in the same house. We have a bunk-bed double on the bottom and single on the top. Husband, first wife and the "ON" wife sleep on the bottom and the other two "OFF" wives sleep above. We find this very intimate as we all are sleeping in the same bed though on different levels and we can still feel and hear what is happening when sex happens in our bed.

Relationships between us sisterwives are in the main quite good as our first wife Hanna is the main force in our household and will settle most of the disputes between the other wives herself without our husband being involved. There are jealousies - this is inevitable between any group of women living closely together. Our husband does his best to be fair to all of us but we all have our own opinion of what is fair, don't we.

Sex, now that is the big one. In our household we have one week (but only on six days we can have sex with him) sleeping with our husband and three weeks off. Our first wife has the Saturdays with our husband in addition to her week so she gets four extra days with him in each cycle. That's why she sleeps on the lower bunk every night with the "ON" wife. In reality we have sex in an average week about two to three times in the six days we can have sex with our husband. Though it's not totally satisfying (two or three times a month) for us we do find that having a week with our husband is the better method then the one-night method used by others.

Money, well we have four incomes in our household. Our husband Brian is an accountant, first wife Hanna is the deputy headteacher at the local elementary school, second wife Mary is a nurse, I'm the stay-at-home wife (I look after the children under school age and do the cleaning, washing and generally look after the house), that's my job, fourth wife Mary-Jane, she is a teacher at the same elementary school as Hanna. On Sunday and when the other wives come home they do the ironing, some of the cooking and the gardening.

All income from the wives goes into the same account and each wife gets the same allowance for their personal needs, the rest is saved for special events and needs for us wives. Husband's income pays for all the household bills as would be normal in any marriage and he has his allowance that comes from his account.

No, we don't have physical relationships between sisterwives because its not permitted in our religion. We sleep with our arms on top of our bed covers so it doesn't happen. And in any case if any wife was foolish enough to try all would feel it in our bed; a simple rule - no touching or kissing in bed or at any other time between one woman and another sisterwife and another.

As for sex, no we don't get very much actual sex, ie, our husband entering us, but he does work very hard and sometimes quite late so a wife cannot expect him to perform every night.

I love being in a polygamy family and my sisterwives agree with me. The downside is the sex, not the quality, I have no complaints about that, but just the quantity and we all know that it will get worse when the final two wives join in the next two to three years. Then it will be like two to three times in six weeks. As you go higher in the temple government the more wives you have to have and as our husband has been appointed as group treasurer and deputy convenor of our temple it means he now must have six wives. Us wives get no say in how many wives our husband has but we do have a big say in who joins us - as a sisterwife it's really the only power we have.


The Global Persecution of Women