Have you ever been to a wedding where the cake was decorated with figurines of the happy couple? In their plasticky way those figures perfectly represent most people’s idea of marriage: one man, one woman and kids on the way. Perhaps in a year or two, that image will be joined by one of two same sex partners. We know there are parts of the world which take a different approach to marriage, but practices like polygamy seem quite alien and far-away – something that takes place on far-flung tropical islands perhaps, but mostly illegal and thoroughly frowned upon.
In fact nearly 50 countries around the world permit polygamy – largely countries with a tribal or Muslim heritage. It may surprise you to learn that polygamous unions are recognised in UK law as well – as long the marriages took place in countries where polygamy is permitted. Polygamous marriages cannot be conducted in the UK and spouses in such marriages have fewer rights than those granted by conventional marriage.
Could this situation ever change? On the face of it, such a possibility seems very unlikely, but a recent story from staunchly Catholic Brazil suggests one way in which the concept of multi-partner relationships could – at least in theory – gain legal recognition in other western countries.
The story caused quite a stir in the South American country: a public notary in the state of Sao Paolo had approved a civil union between three people: a man and two women.
The notary , Claudia do Nascimento Domingues, said the trio had decided to declare their relationship in order to obtain the same family rights as conventional marriages – those available following separation or the death of a partner, for example.
The notary’s office examined Brazilian law and concluded that nothing prevented the union being recognised.
The anonymous man and women had already been living together in Rio de Janeiro for three years by the time Ms Domingues recognised the union. They share bills and have opened a joint bank account, something which is also not against Brazilian law.
Ms Domingues said: “We are only recognising what has always existed. We are not inventing anything. For better or worse, it doesn’t matter, but what we considered a family before isn’t necessarily what we would consider a family today.”
You won’t be surprised to hear, I’m sure, that not everyone in Brazil shares that view. Influential lawyer Regina Beatriz Tavares da Silva, denounced the move as “absurd and totally illegal” and pledged to annul the ruling as “something completely unacceptable which goes against Brazilian values and morals”.
Marisa Lobo, a psychologist and evangelical Christian, also expressed outrage. “Jesus, come back soon!”, she wrote in an article for the Verdade Gospel. “I try to imagine the sons of these three people, how would they feel?”
Despite its Catholicism, Brazil has already shown a willingness to take a progressive view on family matters. It is, for example, one of only three South American countries to permit civil partnerships between same sex couples (the others being Argentina and Uruguay). As in the UK, these civil partnerships grant the same legal rights as conventional marriage.
I am intrigued by the suggestion that the unnamed trio from Rio de Janeiro represent a fresh take on the concept of family. Many will find this idea difficult to accept I’m sure – even those who otherwise take a liberal view of family matters. But as a society we have shown ourselves quite capable of accepting – albeit sometimes slowly and grudgingly – ideas that were once quite shocking. Nowadays nobody is scandalised by couples who live together without getting married – the phrase ‘living in sin’ is a quaint relic of a bygone age. Civil unions between same sex couples are legal and increasingly uncontentious, with legislation for full marriage amongst gay couples increasingly likely.
Polygamous relationships may seem a bridge too far now, but in 20 or 30 years? Well, I don’t think we can rule anything out