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The Polygamy Paradox: A Feminist Re-Understanding of Polygamy, Human Movement and Human Rights

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis is about the boundaries of domestic immigration law and international human rights regarding polygamy. It considers how polygamous wives are treated, and why.
Polygamy has traditionally been viewed in the West as ‘harmful’, both to women and society. Western legal systems do not allow domestic plural marriage, and international human rights institutions recommend the prohibition of polygamy. Despite that, valid foreign polygamous marriages are recognised in the United Kingdom, particularly where it would be more harmful to do otherwise—except in immigration. The Immigration Act 1988 and Immigration Rules exclude additional polygamous wives from reuniting with their families. No exception is made and any harm that women are likely to suffer as a result is irrelevant.
This thesis argues that the treatment of additional polygamous wives, particularly in the refugee context where women are more likely to be exposed to insecurity and harm, presents a ‘polygamy paradox’. While formal objections to polygamy are apparently based on harm, they are likely to cause more harm than good. This work interrogates the stance on polygamy to consider not only its paradoxical effect, but what informs this outcome. Applying a critical legal understanding, this thesis exposes not only the unintended consequences of the law. It also highlights what has shaped legal boundaries, historically and more recently, revealing a hidden bias that undermines the legitimacy and efficacy of laws and rights.
This work concludes by offering a renewed feminist framework for the consideration of polygamy; one which takes account of gender, history and power. Ordinary epistemological foundations for the treatment of polygamy are disturbed, so the voices of women who have occupied a neglected space at the centre of laws, rights and reality as a relentlessly excluded ‘other’ are heard, and the content of laws and rights may be improved.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date2018


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