Of the 111 members of the Guinean parliament, 105 voted in support of revising a civil code so that it now requires men who wish to marry more than one wife to gain the approval of their first wives before doing so.
The law applies to “all Guinean citizens” and stipulates that “a future husband may, at the point of a first marriage, in the presence of his future wife and with her agreement, declare that he opts for polygamy, limited to a maximum of four wives”. If this declaration is not made, the new law states that “the marriage is assumed to be monogamous”.
This is further to the step taken in 2018 when lawmakers in the country amended the civil code that governs relations between people to allow men to choose between the matrimonial regime of monogamy and polygamy, with a maximum of four wives. Thus Guinea became the latest among a number of African countries to fully legalise polygamy.
Before last year, polygamy was prohibited for civil marriages in Guinea, even though it is widely practised in religious marriages – albeit unsanctioned.
The legalisation of polygamy elicited a major backlash from the Guinean president and many women in the country who argued that it moved the culture backwards, undermined women’s dignity and increased the risk of disease and poverty.
However, this recent revision has been received well, according to a number of people interviewed by the BBC. One said that it was “a big step forward” for Guineans. “We are doing well now … Thanks to this law, the marginalisation of women will stop. Until now, their opinion was not important.”
Another woman said, “If a woman does not think that her husband should take a second wife, the husband should refrain from doing so.”
In religious terms, the amendment is problematic in a country where the majority of the population is Islamic. In verse 3 of Surah 4 of the Quran, titled “The Women”, the appropriate behaviour for Muslim husbands is described: “You may marry two, three or four women, but if you fear you might not be fair with all of them, then marry only one, or one of the slaves in your possession. This makes it more likely that you will avoid bias.”
Religious leaders have used this text to fervently oppose the change. Imam Cisse of the Kébé mosque is quoted by the BBC as saying, “Islam allows men to take up to four wives. It does not say that if the first wife does not agree, we cannot get a second one. The first wife can be informed of the decision to get a second.” He added, “Islam does not say that we should not look for a second wife because the first one does not agree. This law does not conform to the Islamic religion.”
Reports are optimistic, however, because the amendment is seen as a step towards a new norm that not only prescribes monogamy but also empowers women to have a fair stake in their future.