In the past thirty years, polygamy has become a flashpoint of conflict as Western governments attempt to regulate certain cultural and religious practices that challenge seemingly central principles of family and justice. In Forbidden Intimacies: Polygamies at the Limits of Western Tolerance (Stanford UP, 2023), Melanie Heath comparatively investigates the regulation of polygamy in the United States, Canada, France, and Mayotte. Drawing on a wealth of ethnographic and archival sources, Heath uncovers the ways in which intimacies framed as "other" and "offensive" serve to define the very limits of Western tolerance.
These regulation efforts, counterintuitively, allow the flourishing of polygamies on the ground. The case studies illustrate a continuum of justice, in which some groups, like white fundamentalist Mormons in the U.S., organise to fight against the prohibition of their families' existence, whereas African migrants in France face racialized discrimination in addition to rigid migration policies. The matrix of legal and social contexts, informed by gender, race, sexuality, and class, shapes the everyday experiences of these relationships. Heath uses the term "labyrinthine love" to conceptualise the complex ways individuals negotiate different kinds of relationships, ranging from romantic to coercive.
What unites these families is the secrecy in which they must operate. As government intervention erodes their abilities to secure housing, welfare, work, and even protection from abuse, Heath exposes the huge variety of intimacies, and the power they hold to challenge heteronormative, Western ideals of love.
Rituparna Patgiri is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She has a PhD in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Her research interests lie in the areas of food, media, gender and public. She is also one of the co-founders of Doing Sociology. Patgiri can be reached at @Rituparna37 on Twitter.
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