A Tale of Two Minorities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
–in short, the period was so far like the present period,
that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received,
for good or for evil,
in the superlative degree of comparison only
.
-Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

How can the Australian public and their elected representatives stand in the way of marriage equality? Why on earth should so many, otherwise fair-minded people obstruct simple changes to the law – changes that could enable a historically marginalised community within our society to enjoy an enhanced and dignified status in our social and legal system? The changes we are talking about would not cause the sky to fall in, nor would they undermine so-called “traditional marriages” – in fact they would barely have any widespread ramifications beyond the people they are designed to empower, embrace and celebrate.

How many people in this country are truly hellbent on denying recognition of loving relationships – many of which already involve sexual intimacy, cohabitation and even dependent children?

What could possibly stop us from ensuring we secure marriage equality for the Islamic community?

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[1]

Surely it’s time to stop denying members of a vulnerable minority in our community the right to be with the man or women they love?

Surely it’s time to stop telling the second and third female partners of some Muslim men in this country that their relationship is second-rate; that they’re inferior to traditional, monogamous, heterosexual marriage partners; that the love, intimacy and family responsibilities they share with their ‘husband’ should never be legally recognised by the law?

Imagine the pain these women feel when their brothers and sisters can get married to the person they want to spend the rest of their lives with, but their relationship is relegated to a lesser status, just because they weren’t ‘first in line.’

Imagine the pain of the second ‘wife’ when our law and society marginalise her by treating her like a concubine or mistress – while their darling’s first ‘wife’ is fully recognised as such by law.

Imagine what the children of these women have to endure, if the wider community treats them as though their father and mother aren’t really married and their living arrangements are somehow strange or unpalatable.

As Professor Kerryn Phelps put it so well:
Denying one group within a society the right to marry deliberately cuts right to the core of the emotional world of those individuals. Today, most people can’t imagine a situation where blacks and whites, or Jews and non-Jews would still be banned from marriage, not here in Australia. But some of us do not need to stretch our imaginations because we are living in a state of marriage apartheid… in Australia… right now… “[2]

And as others have eloquently expressed: “Marriage equality is primarily about ending social exclusion and giving all Australians the same basic rights.”[3]”An equitable society, free of discrimination, allows all members to function at their best. Legalised discrimination in one area allows discrimination to flourish in all areas. Australia is a robust democracy with a proud history of social reform. We believe this should continue, with all citizens being treated equally, including those who are currently excluded from the institution of marriage.” [4]

Bigoted attitudes, Islamophobia, right-wing religious views and arcane social conventions must not stand in the way of this important reform. There is no good reason that two people who love each other, and can legally enjoy a sexual and domestic arrangement with one another shouldn’t be allowed to marry: the fact that one of them happens to be married to someone already just shouldn’t matter

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When the dominant narrative in our society says that the law should be changed to legally compel millions of Australia to recognise ceremonialised same-sex relationships as completely equal to heterosexual marriages and that homosexuality should be celebrated as something wonderful – it is bizarre and prejudicial not to grant equivalent rights and recognitions to a minority community that constitute roughly the same percentage of the national population.

There are plenty of objections that may be raised against this line of argument, so let me deal with a few pertinent ones.

There is no equivalent case for polygamy here – because Muslim men are not actually legally prohibited from getting married. It’s unfair to compare a man who can’t legally “marry” a second woman to a gay man or lesbian woman who aren’t allowed to get married at all. 

This really highlights one of the significant issues at hand when it comes to Marriage law. Do we want to change the law because of arbitrary legal discrimination against a certain group in our society that prevents them from marrying? Or do we want to change the law to give equal recognition to committed – potentially lifelong – romantic and domestic relationships?

On face value, there is no discrimination against gay men or lesbians in the Marriage Act. Everyone in Australia is legally bound to the same definitions and prohibitions around marriage. Gay and lesbian Australians have the same right to marriage that all other citizens enjoy – they can legally marry a consenting, non-related, adult of the opposite sex who is not already in a legal marital relationship. What they’re asking for is not the removal of discrimination, but a special right to have their relationships with people of the same sex recognised as marriages.

So the question becomes one of whether or not Australians have the freedom to have their relationships – based on sexual attraction, romantic feelings and permanent domestic arrangements – recognised as marriage. And since we all have the same freedom and rights under the definition presented in the Marriage Act, the question then becomes one of whether other types of relationship should be given the same legal recognition as marriages that meet the current provisions of the Act.

The popular argument for same-sex marriage is to recognise gay and lesbian relationships (where the partners wish to be recognised as “married”) as completely equivalent to heterosexual marriages, on the strength of their sexual attraction, romantic feelings and permanent domestic arrangements. The gender aspect (i.e. man + woman) is abrogated as unnecessary, because these other factors are seen as more essential to the concept of marriage.

A case for polygamy would simply alter or remove the numeric provision of the Marriage Act and make it less exclusive. The Muslim man who wishes to take a second wife should not have this right dismissed on the grounds that he can already legally marry a woman under the Act. A gay man has that exact same right!

If a man is sexually or romantically attracted to another woman and wishes to spend the rest of his life in a domestic relationship with her as his wife (and she consents) – why would anyone who supports “marriage equality” want to deny their relationship this special, equal recognition? The basis is the same – we’re just calling for a different, but similarly archaic portion of the Act to be changed for the sake of letting love be love.

Members of the Islamic Community are not actively pushing for polygamous marriage to the extent that the LGBTIQ etc;etc;etc; community is advocating for same-sex marriage.  

This objection is largely irrelevant because there are many Muslims in Australia that would happily enter into such marital relationships if they were legally permitted to do so. Significant figures in the Islamic community do in fact advocate for marriage equality for Muslims under Australian law.

One plausible reason that many more do not vocally call for law reform, is because they fear the same kind of bigoted reprisals that gay or lesbian activists would have experienced if they had called for marriage equality years ago.

While homophobia still exists, it is mitigated by a powerful and still-growing groundswell of pro-gay community support. Islamophobia is frequently decried by respectable voices within politics and the media, yet it is tolerated to a much larger degree and the pro-Muslim voices within Australia are much fainter. [The recent polls showing nearly half of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration highlights this dramatically].

Disgustingly, there are virtually no significant non-Muslim Australians advocating for an expansion of the definition of marriage to include the beautiful sexual and relational diversity found in many expressions of Islamic identity.

Similarly, Australians are quiet in their support for Muslims being able to express their identity under sharia law – the adoption of which would be an enormously symbolic gesture of acceptance and dignity towards them, which ultimately wouldn’t affect the lives of non-Muslim Australians whatsoever.

Polygamous marriage is not intrinsic or essential to Islamic practice or identity and therefore is a poor comparison with marriage equality. 

This is simply refuted by the fact that having homosexual relationships recognised as “marriages” is in no way intrinsic or essential to their identifying as “gay” or “lesbian” (they’ve been doing that for decades without the appendage of legalised same-sex marriages) or living a homosexual lifestyle.

It doesn’t matter that Muslims can live out their Islamic identity in many ways without polygamous marriage; nor that many of them would not avail themselves of the opportunity to marry multiple women or wed an already married man; nor that some would be very content for the law not to change. Why? Because all of those things are comparatively true when it comes to same-sex marriage and the LGBTI community.

The fact is we unjustly restrict Muslims from exercising their freedom to express their love and sexuality in a recognised marital relationship between two partners, simply because our society has understood the mathematics of marriage differently.

This is not morally or philosophically different to the current Marriage Act’s restriction on gay and lesbian couples from having their sexual, romantic and domestic relationships recognised as marriages, simply because our society has traditionally understood the gender equation of marriage differently.

We can and should reject amending marriage to include polygamous arrangements, while supporting same-sex marriage, because polygamy is not about equality, but enables the subjugation of women. 

This may be one of your strongest objections, but it doesn’t matter, because you’re an Islamophobic bigot, whose prejudicial views aren’t welcome in this discussion.

You’re stereotyping Muslim men and Islamic culture as harsh and wife-oppressing, whilst completely devaluing a relationship that you don’t understand: one that is entered into willingly more often than not. It’s your bigotry that forces these women to live in relationships that are treated as second-class by the law and who are constantly made to feel their status is inferior.

Denying recognised marital status to potentially hundreds of women on the grounds that a few of them might be abused is not only faulty, but cruel and misguided. It does nothing to help women who may already be in unrecognised relationships with abusive men and everything to discriminate against those who are happily in a culturally and religiously approved sexual and domestic relationship with a man who already has a wife.

Furthermore, Islamic law requires wives in polygamous marriages to be treated with complete equality by their husbands – so charges of inequality and abuse can be seen as nothing more than hatred by people who don’t understand what they’re against.

Conclusion: The Tale of Two Minorities

If the media is to be believed, up to 70% of Australians support changing the law to enable recognition of homosexual relationships as state-sanctioned marriages.

We’re told this is about human rights for a vulnerable minority. A minority that should not only be tolerated and legally protected, but fully affirmed and celebrated by conferring a new and special status upon their way of life and their relationships.

On the other hand, support for changing the law to recognise polygamous relationships (permitted under Islam as a positive thing) as state-sanctioned marriage appears to be extremely low. In stark contrast to support for homosexual “marriage equality” there would seem to be significantly less non-Muslim Australians who support polygamous marriage equality for their fellow citizens, than there are Muslims in Australia.

Why this massive discrepancy? Surely it’s because polygamy is itself manifestly inferior to same-sex marriage; completely undesirable to many Muslim women; and out of line with mainstream Australian values? Is that the case? Or could it be Australians have chosen to play favourites with minorities in our community?

When it comes to getting what they want, LGBT folk are encouraged to yell louder because “change is at our fingertips”, “victory will be won”. But for Muslims, the message seems more like, “Be quiet and behave yourself and your nice, powerful white friends will make sure you don’t cop too much vilification.” “Don’t go and do something like promote polygamy or sharia – you’re not helping yourselves!”

Homophobia is vehemently denounced, while Muslims seem to struggle to gain more tolerance in society than their Islamophobic opponents are implicitly granted by the lack of true pro-Muslim advocacy. LGBTIQetc; interests are officially promoted to the point that they’re widely encouraged to seek to radically change a fundamental element of our society – while the Muslim community is typically encouraged to shy away from calling for any radical changes to customs or institutions. They’re to embrace the Australian life the way they found it and do their distinct “identity stuff” quietly, where it doesn’t get in people’s faces.

To be clear, I don’t support the legalisation of polygamy for Muslims in Australia (just as I don’t support altering the Marriage Act to include same-sex relationships). But I know some people who probably also don’t, but should. That is to say, same-sex marriage advocates should support polygamy, if they don’t want to be guilty of arbitrarily supporting the sexual, domestic and social interests of one demographic minority in Australia, while inexplicably failing to do so for another.

So what’ll it be Australia? Full marriage equality NOW? Or tacit Islamophobia and faulty social favouritism?

[1] Tord Sollie “One is not enough” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Kerryn Phelps http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/quotable-quotes/
[3] Headspace http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/quotable-quotes/
[4] Open Letter from Australian Academia http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/academic-support/

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