Saturday, 7 November 2015

Polygamy is a personal choice

Last month, South Sudan's first female pilot Aluel Bol Aluenge, got married in a beautiful ceremony in Juba.

Aluel became the country's first woman pilot in 2011. She worked for one of Africa's best airlines, Ethiopian Airlines. She's now a first class pilot at FlyDubai.

Aluel has come a long way in her life, hence her accomplishments are widely celebrated, not just among South Sudanese, but also by anyone who hears her story. Her story gives hope that our past and our struggles do not define our future and our capabilities. She's inspiring to many and her story gives hope to many youngsters in the country that anything is possible with ambition and determination.

Taking into account what she has accomplished, it comes to no surprise that there was an outcry on social media about her marriage to a polygamist. I was personally asked by friends and family, what would possess someone as accomplished, and highflying (no pun intended) as Aluel, to marry a polygamist?

My response to anyone who asks me is that it's her personal choice. This may be regarded as a cop out because I am not condemning or condoning the marriage, which many others have. I choose to not pick a side on the matter of polygamy if the woman has chosen it for herself.

I also believe many South Sudanese have this attitude that they know everything about someone based on rumours, hearsay and gossip. It's imperative for us to be honest with ourselves about the fact that we don't know the ins and outs of anyone's marriage, previous relationships, and personal preferences and beliefs.

As I stated in my review of the Love and Relationship Guide for the Junubin Girl, there are plenty of educated and accomplished women who do not have any reservations on dowry or even polygamy.

Dowry and polygamy are a popular target for criticism by many flying the feminist flag. They often criticise the practices, judge proponents and willing participants, without fully understanding these cultural practices and the various factors that influence these practices, i.e. circumstances and societal changes.

The first mistake we make is condemning or judging without understanding, whether it be Aluel's choice or the cultural practices themselves. A lot of 'progressive thinkers' make untrue assumptions or parallels for the reasons behind dowry or polygamy. For example, some believe dowry is about 'ownership' of the wife so that the husband can do whatever he wants with her. That's not how dowry works and that's not the reason it is practiced. Nor was a man wanting to satisfy his sexual needs by having as many wives as he wants, the reason for polygamy. It's important that the primary reasons for the cultural practices are elucidated because they are often heavily misused for control, financial gain and abuse.

To illustrate, there are South Sudanese men who think playing girls is acceptable because of polygamy. Accordingly, one can deduce that this cultural aspect is clearly being abused for egotistical reasons.

In polygamy, a man has to have the consent of his wife, before he can take on more wives. The dysfunction and abuse of our cultural practices is truly representative of the disintegration of our culture and society. However, we are not all that powerless. Fully understanding our cultural practices and customary law, can empower South Sudanese women in cases where they are being mistreated by their husband etc.

We also have to appreciate the fact that South Sudanese women are treated differently and have different options and circumstances. A South Sudanese woman's level of freedom really depends on family dynamics, wealth, education and how much her family values her and her choices. But I digress.

Anyone is welcome to their opinions and to expressing them, they just shouldn't impose them on others. Aluel can be easily regarded as a role model because of her accomplishments. I feel a lot of the disappointment in her marriage came from the fact that she is a role model, and there's fear that she's sending out 'the wrong message'. Whether people are influenced by her personal life or not, their outcomes is still their personal responsibility.

We don't know Aluel's reasons, but some women in polygamous marriages have expressed that they like the sisterhood that sometimes comes with it, and the security that her husband is able to provide for her and the family.

We cannot impose our opinions on others, even if we personally don't agree with theirs. We should always show people they can do great things in their professional and personal lives, but at the same time respect the choices that they have made, without all the assumptions, judgments and abuse. Call this a cop out, but if she's happy, who are we to get in the way of that?

Further reading on Dinka and Nuer culture can be purchased here.