Bountiful B.C, home of a large community of FLDS members seems to be the site of renewed debates regarding the legality of polygamist marriages in Rachel Browne’s article (http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/in-wake-of-bountiful-charges-feminists-call-for-decriminalization-of-polygamy/). The sect of the LDS (Mormon) church has been making news for decades, with leaders having been accused of sexual abuse, child trafficking and plural marriages. Though it may seem unconstitutional to criminalize religious freedom, the illegalization of polygamy was justified on the reasoning that polygamy is inherently harmful to “women, children and society.”
Feminist scholars have criticized the ruling and have called for the decriminalization of polygamy. When reading this article for the first time, I was extremely skeptical that it was feminist scholars who were rallying behind polygamy. Media portrayals have notoriously associated polygamy with exploitation and sexual abuse. It is men who marry multiple women. Women appear to be without power or equality in the FLDS church.
The feminist critique holds that the criminalization of polygamy is wrong because the act of marriage between two consenting adults is not criminal. Some scholars interviewed women in Bountiful who said they were content, and didn’t find polygamy harmful. In a case like Bountiful it is difficult take these women’s words at face value, and we lean towards words like “brainwashed.” Criminal investigations into Bountiful revealed child exploitation, poor education and abuse. Hearing these women say they this may lead many to judge them for being blind to these horrors.
In later reads the feminist’s logic became more apparent in that, polygamy was used as a proxy to gain proof of criminal misconduct. Whether or not this was a result of polygamist practices exclusively, or by individuals themselves is unbeknown. Depictions of polygamist communities often lead us to assume it is an inherent problem with the FLDS religion. Feminists argue that because we are so quick to judge polygamy, especially the women who partake – we won’t be able to study their true experiences, as they’ll be too afraid to speak out.
There are two sides two this argument, and both make valid points. However, it’s difficult to separate the practice of the polygamy from a context that is often linked to child marriages, exploitation and sexual abuse. Feminists do not defend the acts committed in places like Bountiful, rather the criminalization of plural marriages. Despite this, polygamy’s history with criminal misconduct is hard to ignore.
The court is not prosecuting religious freedom as much as they are prosecuting the grounds in which women and children are harmed. The feminists conclude that polygamy is incompatible with our constitutional laws because they are based on monogamous marriages. However, given the liberalization marriage laws for same-sex marriages this doesn’t seem to be the prosecution’s line of reasoning. Undeniably, the criminalization of polygamy is a case of the few defining the many. Perhaps this law is solely designed as a safety net to protect children, women and society when polygamy is in fact harmful, despite overgeneralization.