A rebel army hiding in the wilds of Africa descends on a village and abducts women to be “sex slaves.” The Boko Haram kidnapping of over 270 schoolgirls in Nigeria is only the latest example of a phenomenon that has become almost routine.
The conventional explanation is that this is a form of Islamic terrorism driven by lack of respect for women. Now, it is undeniable that Boko Haram is a jihadist organization engaged in terrorism and warfare. And it is also undeniable that Islam severely limits women’s freedom, veils and sequesters them, and generally excludes them from public life. But the simple explanation that kidnapping women is an inevitable extension of jihad terrorism leaves several obvious questions unanswered:
1) Why is it that kidnapping young women is unknown among Islamic terrorist groups within the Islamic world?
3) Why is it that rebel armies and other dissident groups in Africa almost routinely kidnap women as sex slaves even though they are not practicing Islam?
The answer goes deeper than Islam and religious conviction. It goes right to the heart of what differentiates Africa from most of the rest of the world and creates a continent-wide culture that precludes both political and social stability. The core of the problem is the widespread practice of polygamy.
West Africa has long been and remains to this day the world capital of polygamous culture. There has never been any restriction on the number of wives a rich and powerful man may take. Any man who accumulates even a small amount of wealth or property is likely to take multiple wives. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the 1970s dictator of the Central African Republic, had 17 wives and 51 children. Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, has four wives and 20 children. One Exxon corporate executive in Nigeria is reported to have 70 wives.
Writing as far back as 1920 in Primitive Society, one of the first compendiums of modern anthropology, Richard Lowie observed:
From Africa there are reported instances of an extraordinary multiplicity of wives. . . . We find well-authenticated cases of men with five, ten, twenty and even sixty wives. . . . It is clear than even [a] moderate indulgence in polygyny on the part of the socially distinguished would make it very difficult for many young men to acquire a mate at all.
All this draws a bright line between the tribal cultures of the world, where polygamy is almost uniformly practiced, and the great civilizations of both the East and the West, where monogamy has become the norm. Monogamy is the underlying social contract that makes these civilizations possible. It is also the unwritten agreement that led to the evolution of the human species in the first place. We spent the first 5 million years of our existence as monogamous hunter-gatherers. Even where hunter-gatherers have been discovered today in remote corners of the world, they are almost uniformly monogamous.
The logic is simple. If a small band of 20 or so relatively defenseless hominids was to survive in the forbidding environment of prehistory, it had to keep everyone on board. This means giving everyone a chance to mate. Monogamy keeps everyone on board by giving everyone a fair chance to mate. There is “a boy for every girl and a girl for every boy.” It is also what enabled humanity to advance beyond warring tribal cultures, forever fighting each other over women, to the relative peace and harmony of advanced civilization.
Only when early human tribes settled down to primitive agriculture did the old hunter-gatherer monogamy slip away. Men began accumulating property, and the old mammalian impulse of collecting as many mates as possible returned. Once high-status males start taking multiple wives, however, some men will inevitably be left out. They become a disaffected cohort, and the social fabric begins to fray.
The only reasonable solution is to raid the neighboring tribe for their women. This was the state of much of the world when European colonization began in the 19th century. Then the preaching of Christianity began to change things. Even today, when isolated tribes such as South America’s Yanomamo — “the Fierce People” — are discovered, they are constantly at war over women. African and Islamic cultures have not yet advanced beyond this stage. Instead, they have institutionalized polygamy.
Writing in 2013, Nigerian feminist Chikelu Chinelo observed, “Not minding their level of education, the consciousness of the average African man . . . has not changed. . . . The moment they are able to achieve some measure of success materially, there is always the tendency to let go of the inhibition that the white man’s religion or education imposes on them and find them marrying many women.” Only last month, Kenya legalized polygamy, arguing that it represents a “traditional” form of marriage that has been suppressed by the encroachments of Christianity. Nor is this a plot for the suppression of women hatched by a hierarchy of dominant males. “We are happy with the law because finally all marriages are being treated equally” was the comment of Christine Ochieng, executive director of the nation’s Federation of Women Lawyers, to CNN. Women are often comfortable with polygamy because it allows them to marry higher-status men than they could otherwise.
Oddly, in most of Africa, Muslim men are considered relatively responsible husbands because the Koran obliges them to treat their wives equally. But still they do not escape the fundamental dilemma of polygamous cultures — there are never enough women to go around.
The battle to establish monogamy in the great civilizations of East and West occurred over the course of centuries and was fought long and hard. The Iliad depicts a society where mistresses and concubines are still the rule and wars start over women. Only in the Odyssey, where Odysseus spends ten years trying to return to his wife while Penelope waits faithfully for him, did monogamy become transcendent. India has a similar tale in the legend of Rani Padmini, the beautiful queen of a besieged city who committed suicide rather than join the harem of a conquering Mogul ruler. And in China, the long Confucian tradition of loyal family ties has ultimately triumphed over the impulse of emperors and other men of high standing to collect multiple wives.
Islam is the only major civilization that has allowed polygamy to prevail and it is the exception that proves the rule. Although Islamic culture has reached high points at various times in history, it has always been plagued by rump factions of disaffected men who go out into the desert and decide that what is being practiced by the sultan and his harem in the capital is not the “true Islam.” They crash back onto the cities, overthrow the existing regime, and establish another just like it. Al-Qaeda is only the latest of an endless series of breakaway cults that have created the perpetual rounds of violence in Islamic history. Except for Saudi Arabia, polygamy is not too widely practiced in Muslim countries, however, and the Koranic restriction to four wives somewhat mitigates its impact. Then there is always the escape valve of jihad, which points hostilities outwards toward other cultures with the everlasting promise of 72 virgins in heaven.
In Africa, on the other hand, polygamy is so unbridled and widespread that kidnapping of young girls by rebel armies and other dissident groups has become a familiar routine. In Gambia, 60 Ghanaian children were discovered being held as sex slaves in an isolated community of Gambian fishermen. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a purportedly Christian evangelistic guerilla group in Uganda, was recently reported by the U.N. to have kidnapped 600 young girls as sex slaves and young wives.
Such aberrations are inevitable with the widespread practice of polygamy. Only if Africa — and Islam — adopt the difficult social contract of monogamy will they ever be able to achieve the relative peace and prosperity that has been attained by other civilizations.
— William Tucker is author of Marriage and Civilization.