Politics & Policy

A Polygamist State of Mind

Unacceptable behavior in New York.

Big-city tabloids love puppies, kittens, almost-naked women, and babies. It’s a cliché of downmarket journalism that editors should take any opportunity to print pictures of any of the above. So perhaps my fear of creeping sharia practice right here in the Big Apple constitutes reading too much into what could be a perfectly innocent story in this past Sunday’s New York Post, accompanied with a full page of pictures, about a Malian immigrant named Moussa Magassa and his pair of two-month-old infant sons.

The adorable babies, each one shown being held by his mother, are noteworthy because a year ago — March 7, 2007 — Moussa’s house in a Bronx neighborhood full of West African immigrants burned, tragically killing four of his children (as well as another woman and her child). Mayor Bloomberg attended the funeral and went all out to comfort the bereaved and mitigate the family’s suffering. As the city joined Mr. Magassa in mourning such a grave loss, it slowly became clear that, in the building he owned, he had been housing his two wives and their offspring. This seemed a little shocking at the time, though no one was rude enough to point out that polygamy isn’t legal in New York — or anywhere in this country. Those convicted of bigamy in New York can be sentenced to four years in prison.

A couple of weeks after the fire, the New York Times ran a front-page story explaining that there is now a full-blown culture of polygamous West African immigrants, most of them here illegally, who keep importing young, mostly illiterate, and therefore powerless brides from the villages of Mali, Senegal, and Guinea. It’s all very hush-hush. The women involved may be miserable, but they cannot risk complaining, since they can easily be divorced, kicked out of the community, and stranded. Because they are here illegally and their marriages are not valid in the United States (though they can serve as grounds for deportation of a polygamous husband), the women effectively have no rights. So they often put up with brutal conditions. Among other things, sharing a cramped New York apartment with 11 kids and another woman is far more likely to lead to, say, domestic violence than living in neighboring huts in a traditional village.

The Times’s exceptionally well-researched story said that social-service workers have learned not to make an issue of polygamy in handing out benefits and guiding applicants, legal and otherwise, through the bureaucratic mazes of the welfare system. Doctors at hospitals turn a blind eye. The men speak for their wives. By quoting women who have left such marriages after abuse and misery, the story suggested that perhaps polygamy wasn’t quite as benign a multi-culti variant of our own cozy little practices as was being portrayed. Suffice it to say, however, that the story caused no changes in New York’s policies.

In any event, now that a year has passed since the fire, the Post decided to catch up with Moussa Magassa and his family, which is growing again. Manthia, 36, the mother of the four dead children, gave birth on January 4 to a son. Aisse, 25, gave birth to twins the very next day at the same hospital. (One of the twins, the girl, died a few weeks later.) But Mr. Magassa’s family is also growing in another way: Lo and behold, in the interim, he has taken an additional wife — and now lives with all three. The new, youngest one is named Niekale.

I am trying to think like the liberal legal scholars, anthropologists, and activists, and consider honestly — not just as a matter of my bourgeois, Judeo-Christian, American, female prejudices — what the merits of polygamy might be, now that my neighbors could be practicing it with impunity sometime soon.

To be sure, in the Post’s pictures of the Magassa women, none of them look happy. In their chadors, with their full faces revealed, they look sad and resigned, while their graying husband appears to be chortling with glee. Advocates for polygamy tell us that it breeds sororal feeling among the wives, and while it may engender normal human jealousy, it also provides domestic support and more hands to lighten the load at home. But I am wondering how that goes in the Magassa family.

After all, with two wives out of commission due to pregnancy, it would have been up to the newest one, Niekale, to do the housework, take care of the others’ offspring, and service the lord and master in bed. Would that be a sexual triumph? Or an unpleasant burden? And what of the other two? It’s bad enough to know that their beloved husband impregnated both of them within days of each other. That sure could make a girl feel just a bit less special when she should be glowing with pregnancy. Knowing that the babies are an assembly-line production might shatter the kind of emotional high that I, for one, cherished when producing my own babies, with their father there in the delivery room — not shuttling off to visit yesterday’s batch.

The Magassa arrangement illustrates perfectly the benefits and drawbacks of polygamy. As a utilitarian matter, polygamy produces more legitimate offspring from a given male, since he can impregnate many women simultaneously. The Magassas got three new lives in a matter of two days, bringing the total number of children up to nine. Back in Mali that would have been useful labor on the farm. In New York, of course, it’s a cost that taxpayers may end up bearing.

The drawback is also apparent. Whatever the current feelings of the participants, such marriages are not love matches. According to the Times story, the women do not come to them freely, nor is any wife an equal partner with her husband. She has, at most, one-third the status that he does — usually much less — and little or no bargaining power. Given the customs of their culture, even when these women are allowed to work outside the home, they are often forced to turn their earnings over to their husband, leaving them essentially working as slave labor.

And those nine children, at least some of whom are American by birth — what do they learn of being free citizens in a democracy from the values they imbibe in this familial structure? The boys become autocrats; the girls become servants. They will never be free men and women, equal and responsible. It’s a longer argument for another day, but allowing this barbaric import to thrive in the U.S. will undermine all the advances that women have made in the past 150 years with regard to education, financial independence, and political and sexual equality. Polygamy, like slavery itself, cannot co-exist with true democracy.

It’s time for the Magassas to be sent home, and for an example to be made so we can avoid the situation the French find themselves in. France has so many people living in polygamous families — somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 — that politicians are powerless to rein in the practice, since the polygamists can vote and riot, and they have the critical mass in their own neighborhoods to elect their own representatives. Nor do they assimilate. If we allow the same thing to occur here, the next thing you know, parts of the United States will live under sharia law. Failure to prosecute is an invitation to just that.

– Lisa Schiffren is a writer and GOP speechwriter living in New York.

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