Polygamy Photo Essay

They promote their family arrangement as part of a growing wave of individual lifestyle choices, managing to anger both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned polygamy in 1890, and to some extent their own Mormon fundamentalist offshoot, the Apostolic United Brethren.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the mainstream church, said polygamists, “including those in reality television programs,” have “no affiliation whatsoever” with the church, “despite the fact that the term ‘Mormon’ is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.” Of the lawsuit, he said, “The current legal efforts will have no bearing on the doctrines or practices of the church.”

As for the Browns’ own church, it promotes polygamy but does not condone homosexuality, and its leaders have quietly suggested that they are uncomfortable with the way the decision in the Browns’ lawsuit has been held up by some same-sex marriage advocates as supporting the underlying issue of personal privacy.

Having attained a measure of celebrity, the Browns find that people seek out their homes and stop them on the street, expecting hugs. While the familiarity can be unsettling, Robyn, one of the wives, said, it means “they saw us as a family, and that’s huge.” Others, however, sharply criticize them in online forums for exposing their children to the prying cameras of reality television, among other perceived offenses.

They have also been put off by the avid interest in the specifics of their intimate lives and the questions they get. They do not “go weird” in the bedroom, as Meri, another wife, has put it; their sexual relations are separate. “These are wholesome, individual marriages,” Robyn said. “It’s actually pretty boring.”

A recent afternoon with the family here suggested that Mr. Brown is far from the domineering figure of past polygamy horror stories like Warren Jeffs, the leader of another fundamentalist group who is serving a life sentence for child sexual abuse. Mr. Brown comes off more as a beleaguered sitcom father facing the challenges of scheduling family time split 21 ways.

Children wandered among the homes, forming random groupings in a kind of Brownian motion, playing, talking and making a companionable racket. Truely, a girl born in 2010, padded around the living room with a toy cellphone to her ear, arguing earnestly with an imaginary friend on the other end of the line: “You’ve got to understand.”

Robyn, who brought three children from an earlier marriage into the family, was nursing her child Solomon, born in 2011. Sprawled nearby were older children, some now in college.

The Browns face the same financial challenges of other families, but more so. College costs are a problem for everyone, but multiplied by 17 they present a nightmare. Until the show (which began in 2010) and the book, times were lean, and there were crises along with bankruptcy filings.

The Browns are reluctant to talk about those times, since they know that fundamentalist Mormons have a reputation for, as Mr. Brown put it, “bleeding the beast” — living off government assistance. Robyn said bankruptcy laws and food stamps exist to help people who fall on hard times.

“There are people who abuse it,” she said, “but not in this family.”

Mr. Brown and each of the wives works to support the family. Along with the income from the show and book, the Browns have an online jewelry business and are involved in a health supplements distributorship; Janelle works in real estate.

In Utah, and in an earlier home in Wyoming, they tried to stretch their dollars by growing an enormous garden and canning food. It did not always work out. In one early effort, Christine and Janelle recalled, they processed 70 quarts of tomatoes and put them in Mason jars. But they had already worked far into the night, and decided to put off the next step — boiling the filled jars — until the next morning.

It was a rookie mistake: the tomatoes spoiled overnight, and by morning, “They were blowing their lids,” Janelle recalled.

“We had tomatoes on the ceiling,” Mr. Brown said.

His first and only legally recognized marriage was in 1990 to Meri, the second in 1993 to Janelle. A year later came Christine. Those early years required complicated accommodation, as well as loud arguments and slammed doors. In 2010, Mr. Brown married Robyn at Meri’s initial suggestion, throwing them all into turmoil again but, again, reaching more of an equilibrium recently. Robyn has a knack for mediation that helped them all learn to argue more constructively.

That often involves the children. Mr. Brown tells the story that Madison, who is in high school and president of the student council, wanted to get her ears pierced. He was against it. Although his children do not wear the prairie dresses of some other fundamentalist sects, earrings, he says, are immodest.

“Our faith isn’t really open to the idea,” he said. He first told Madison that she should wait until graduation, but it quickly became clear that his wives thought the choice should be hers. “My wives were all fighting me here,” he recalled.

“We’re advocating for our daughter,” Meri clarified.

“Everything is a negotiation,” Mr. Brown said, as the retelling of the story became animated, with interruptions and whoops of laughter. He offered a proposal: “I’ll let you pierce them tonight if you promise you won’t get a tattoo until you’re 26.” She responded, “That’s too long!” He fell back to a final offer: tomorrow, and 25. She agreed.

Opponents of polygamy say that the Browns obscure the true damage that their lifestyle involves.

Kristyn Decker left an unhappy polygamist marriage and now leads the organization Sound Choices Coalition; she is also a second cousin by blood and an aunt by marriage to Christine Brown, one of the wives.

“Polygamy is harmful,” she said. “It’s very coercive, and it’s spiritual blackmail.” The Browns, she said, “are a very rare family.”

William Jankowiak, chairman of the department of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the Browns were far from unique, though. In his own studies of polygamous communities, he said: “About 35 percent of the families that I knew just had horrible marriages. They were miserable. But about 65 percent of the marriages were workable.”

In his decision in the case last month, Judge Clark Waddoups of United States District Court cited Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down laws prohibiting sodomy. Both that case and this one, he said, stand for the right of adults to privacy in the intimate aspects of their lives.

The Browns’ lawyer, Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said, “This is essentially the Lawrence v. Texas for plural families.”

The legal fight is not over. Judge Waddoups overturned the vague prohibition on cohabitation but left in place the state’s ability to prohibit multiple marriage licenses. And Utah’s attorney general, Sean Reyes, has said that he will appeal the decision.

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BEERSHEBA — When Fatma was forcefully married to her cousin at age 19, she became his second wife. He drank and beat her. Her own father, who had married her off to her cousin, did not believe her story of abuse, dismissing them as the complaints of someone who never wanted the marriage in the first place.

Eventually, the hospital that treated Fatma after the beatings put her in the hands of social workers. She was taken to a women’s shelter. She was able to get a divorce without showing up to court, due to her documented beatings.

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A year later, she was sent to live with a Jewish family in the north (her “mishpacha,” as she calls them, switching suddenly from Arabic to Hebrew). Fatma asked her real name not be used for her safety.

While living up north, she managed to find another Bedouin man from around Beersheba, who happened to be living there. They fell in love, got married, and raised a happy family with five children. She taught computers at an elementary school.

Twenty years later, she said, her second husband decided to take an 18-year-old as his second wife — so she left him “to protect my dignity.”

Illustrative: Bedouin women walk past the Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel on February 16, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Fatma is not alone. Around one-third of Bedouins practice polygamy in Israel, according to a Knesset estimate, though one Bedouin spokesperson put that number at the 20 percent, and another Bedouin women’s rights activist in favor of polygamy put it at 18%.

The penalty for polygamy, which has been illegal in Israel since 1977, is a five-year jail sentence and fine, but it has rarely been enforced. Two Arab-Israeli lawmakers are currently in polygamous relationships.

However, in January, the cabinet gave its backing to a plan to reduce polygamy in Israel, linking it to domestic violence and a slew of psychological disorders.

“Its primary victims are women and children living in polygamous families,” the Knesset proposal reads. “The professional literature indicates that women in these families suffer from, among other things, physical and emotional violence, psychological crisis, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, a lack of satisfaction from marital life, diminished family functioning, and economic straits.”

The proposal would provide welfare, health, and social services to women and children in polygamous marriages in Israel, incorporate anti-bigamy education in the Israeli school system, and create outreach programs, in a bid to raise awareness of the phenomenon.

The interministerial committees tasked with carrying out the plan are still in the research and discussion phase, and, according to a member of one the committees, will present their recommendations for approval by the end of November.

There are also signs that authorities are starting to enforce anti-polygamy laws on the books.

On October 3, prosecutors indicted a Bedouin man on charges of polygamy, the first since the new guidelines were past in January.

The Ynet news site reported that police have opened 15 cases involving polygamy since the cabinet approved the plan in January.

Both Bedouin opponents and proponents of polygamy are deeply skeptical or outright reject the plan, which is being spearheaded by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, arguing that it is really aimed at decreasing the high Bedouin fertility rate, and thereby, ensure a Jewish majority in the Negev desert, where most Bedouin live.

(Atieh Al Asam, a spokesman for Bedouin villages in the Negev)

They further argue that if Israel were truly worried about the fate of Bedouin women, it would first tackle what they say are more damaging issues, such as lack of education, job opportunities, and house demolitions.

Bedouin women react to the destruction of houses on January 18, 2017, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Israel’s Arab minority has long maintained that state-sponsored discrimination makes it impossible for them to obtain planning permission to expand their communities. The result is that many families resort to building homes without permission, leaving them liable to demolition.

In February, Justice Minister Shaked defended the initiative to The Times of Israel.

“The well-being of the women and children living in polygamous families is the central issue guiding me,” she said.

One TV report, however, claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had referred to the Bedouin birthrate as an “existential threat” for Israel.

According to the Knesset website, the total fertility rate of Bedouin in Israel is about 5.5% per year — the highest in the world.

Israel has also said it is trying to stamp down on the phenomenon of Israeli Bedouin marrying Palestinian women from the West Bank, who then register as divorced — though they continue to be married — in order to claim welfare subsidies and receive children subsidies from the National Insurance Institute.

Forced to have 12 children

Fatma and two other women recently described to a group of journalists in Beersheba how the practice of polygamy among the Muslim population in Israel, but especially within the Bedouin society, had harmed their lives.

Khadra, 46, said she has a “very hard life” taking care of her 12 children. She was married off when she was 16-years-old. She said she planned to have only five children, but her husband had different plans.

He sent her back to her family’s house for years, during which time she couldn’t see the children they’d had together. Their families eventually reconciled, and she returned home to give birth to another seven children.

Yet, she said, their father is hardly around these days and she supports them mostly off of her meager welfare payments, which she said amounts to NIS 160 ($45) monthly per child. When she was younger, she worked in agriculture.

Most of the time Khadra’s husband, she said, is with his second wife, whom he took just six years after marrying Khadra herself. The second wife, who is actually five years his senior, has given birth to seven children.

“I got depressed after the second marriage,” Khadra said. But she stayed with her husband in order to stay with her kids. She feared her children would “hang out in the streets, drink or do drugs” without her.

Bedouin women are treated ‘like cars’

Sulum, 40, has no Israeli ID or residency status. She carries around her children’s vaccination booklet as her only proof of life in Israel, should a cop decide to speak with her. Her body is fully covered in the traditional Islamic black gown and face veil.

Sulum, 40, a Bedouin woman from the Sinai, holds up her children’s vaccination booklet, which she uses as her only government ID. (Luke Tress / Times of Israel)

She was born in the Sinai Peninsula, which today is part of Egypt, but was controlled by Israel when she was born. Unlike Fatma and Khadra, she cannot register to receive any welfare, as she was never given Israeli citizenship, and only moved to Israel when she was 20-years-old. She sells vegetables to make a living.

Sulum is the sixth out of a total of seven wives who married her husband. Traditional Islam allows for a man to marry at maximum four wives at a time, so before marrying Sulum, he divorced his first four wives. He later married two more after Sulum, but years later divorced them, she said, at her request.

Sulum did not want to be in a polygamous relationship, but when her husband married two more women, she said she didn’t protest, in order to be able to stay with her children.

Sulum, Fatma and Khadra all said that their children became emotionally confused and sometimes detached from their fathers after more wives and their children were added to the mix.

Fatma said she is happy today, despite being twice divorced. She feels in control of her life. She said she owes the state a great debt for the help she received from the police and social workers.

Khadra, 46, a Bedouin woman, clasps her hands, as she describes the challenges of being in a polygamous marriage. (Luke Tress / Times of Israel)

She said she spoke to journalists in order to send a message to women: “There can be a life outside of your home. You can make it without a man.”

When describing the situation of Bedouin woman caught up in the culture of polygamy, she compared their situations to cars.

“When the wife isn’t working out, the men get a new one.”

In right conditions, polygamy would mostly vanish naturally

Atieh Al Asam, a spokesman and head of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, argued that polygamy, and much of it harmful effects, would disappear, were the state to provide Bedouins with more work opportunities and education.

In a perfect world, he said, just around 4% of Bedouin would continue the practice —  out of loyalty to the traditional culture.

“We know that it’s a problem having so many children,” he said. “Because of the bad situation, it creates bad results.”

The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in 2015 said the employment rate of Bedouin men is 60%, well below that of both Arabs and Jews. The rate among Bedouin women is 22%.

Men who feel there is no hope for work, he said, tend to marry more wives and find meaning in having more children.

Amal Abu Al Thoum, director of Nisa Badawiyat center, an NGO that works to empower Bedouin woman, would likely be one of those 4 % who continue to promote polygamy should the Bedouin community reach the desired socio-economic standards.

With language peppered with religious phrases such as “peace be upon Him” and “praise God,” she argued that polygamy must be a beneficial practice because it was mandated in the Qur’an.

First and foremost, she said, “It is a rule from God given to us by the Qur’an.”

(Amal Abu Al Thoum, director of Nisa Badawiyat center)

“No law can prevent me from something God gave me,” she added.

Yet aside from its alleged divine origin, she argued polygamy was a way to protect women.

“Polygamy ensures that women are given rights under a legal framework,” she said, rather than “girlfriends in affairs” who don’t inherit God-given rights. She did admit that most girls naturally want to be the only wife.

She said in her own polygamous birth household, everyone got along, and that is generally the case with most.

In a question about what she would tell Fatma, who compared the treatment of Bedouin women to cars, she admitted there are some polygamous marriages that fall into problems.

However, she retorted, “are there no problems with many monogamous marriages as well?”

Marissa Newman and Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.


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