Suvarna Garge (Editor)


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In cultures that practice marital monogamy, bigamy is the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another. Bigamy is a crime in most western countries, and when it occurs in this context often neither the first nor second spouse is aware of the other. In countries that have bigamy laws, consent from a prior spouse makes no difference to the legality of the second marriage, which is usually considered void.


History of anti-bigamy laws

Before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Diocletian and Maximilian passed strict anti-polygamy laws in 285 AD that mandated monogamy as the only form of legal marital relationship, as had traditionally been the case in classical Greece and Rome. In 393, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I issued an imperial edict to extend the ban on polygamy to Jewish communities. In 1000, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah ruled polygamy inadmissible within Ashkenazi Jewish communities, living in a Christian environment.

According to feminist historian Sara McDougall, the Christian European insistence on monogamy and its enforcement arose as a consequence of 16th Century Islamic incursions into Central Europe and the advent of European colonialism within the Americas, Africa and Asia, which exposed European Christians to cultures that practised polygamy. As a consequence, nominal Christian male bigamists were subjected to unprecedented harsh punishments, such as execution, galley servitude, exile, and prolonged imprisonment. McDougall argues that female bigamists were not as harshly punished due to women's perceived absence of moral agency.

In ancient China, bigamy was a punishable offence; however, concubines and mistresses were tolerated as long as they were not acquired through an official marriage. A man, at any given time, could only be married to one woman, and vice versa. Issue with the wife enjoyed preference in inheritance and social status.

Most western countries do not recognize polygamous marriages, and consider bigamy a crime. Several countries also prohibit people from living a polygamous lifestyle. This is the case in some states of the United States where the criminalization of a polygamous lifestyle originated as anti-Mormon laws, although they are rarely enforced.

In diplomatic law, consular spouses from polygamous countries are sometimes exempt from a general prohibition on polygamy in host countries. In some such countries, only one spouse of a polygamous diplomat may be accredited, however.

By country

  • Australia: Illegal. Up to 5 years imprisonment.
  • Belgium: Illegal. 5 to 10 years imprisonment.
  • Brazil: Illegal. 2 to 6 years imprisonment.
  • Canada: Illegal under the Criminal Code, sect 290.
  • China: Illegal. Up to 2 years of imprisonment, and up to 3 years for bigamy with soldiers. (but tolerated for some minorities, such as Tibetans, in some rural areas in the South West) .
  • Colombia Illegal with exceptions (such as religion). Although bigamy no longer exists as a lone figure in the Colombian judicial code marrying someone new without dissolving an earlier marriage may yield to other felonies such as civil status forgery or suppression of information.
  • Egypt: Legal if first wife consents
  • Eritrea: Illegal. Up to 5 years imprisonment.
  • All the 27 countries of the European Union (see special note for the United Kingdom): Illegal.
  • Iceland: Illegal according to the Icelandic Act on Marriage No. 31/1993, Art. 11.
  • Ghana: Illegal. Up to six months imprisonment.
  • Hong Kong: Illegal. Up to 7 years of imprisonment.
  • Republic of Ireland: Bigamy is a statutory offence. It is committed by a person who, being married to another person, goes through a ceremony capable of producing a valid marriage with a third person. The offence is created by section 57 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. This section replaces section 26 of the Act 10 Geo. 4 c. 34 for the Republic of Ireland.
  • Israel: Illegal. Up to 5 years imprisonment.
  • Iran: Legal with consent of first wife, rarely practiced.
  • India: Legal only for Muslims but very rarely practiced. Up to ten years of imprisonment for others except in the state of Goa for Hindus due to its own civil code.
  • Italy: Illegal. Offenders can be sentenced from one up to five years imprisonment.
  • Libya: Legal with conditions.
  • Malaysia: Illegal for non-Muslims under federal jurisdiction. Under section 494 of Chapter XX of the Penal Code, non-Muslim offenders found guilty of bigamy or polygamy shall be punished up to 7 years of imprisonment. Bigamy or polygamy is legal only for Muslims with restrictions under state jurisdiction, rarely practiced.
  • Maldives: Permitted for anyone.
  • Malta: Illegal under the Marriage Act of 1975, section 6.
  • Netherlands: Illegal. Up to 6 years imprisonment. If the new partner is aware of the bigamy he or she can be imprisoned for a maximum of 4 years.
  • New Zealand: Illegal under section 205 of the Crimes Act 1961. Up to 7 years imprisonment, or up to 2 years imprisonment if the judge is satisfied the second spouse was aware their marriage would be void.
  • Morocco: Permitted for Muslims, restrictions apply.
  • Pakistan: Polygamy in Pakistan is permitted with restrictions.
  • Philippines: Legal for Muslims. Others face six to twelve years imprisonment and legal dissolution of marriage.
  • Romania: Illegal under section 273 of the Civil Code.
  • Saudi Arabia: Bigamy or Polygamy is legal.
  • South Africa: Legal under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, 1998 for customary marriages. Under civil law marriages (regulated by the Marriage Act), any marriage in addition to an already existing one is invalid (but not criminalized).
  • Somalia: Polygamy is legal at marriage courts; long-standing tradition.
  • Taiwan: Illegal. Up to 5 years imprisonment.
  • Thailand: Prior to October 1, 1935, polygamy in Thailand could be freely practiced and recognised under civil law. Since its abolition, it is still practiced and widely accepted in Thailand, though no longer recognised, as the law states "A man or a woman cannot marry each other while one of them has a spouse."
  • Tunisia: Illegal. Up to 5 years imprisonment
  • Turkey: Illegal. Up to 5 years imprisonment
  • United Kingdom: Illegal, although marriages performed abroad may be recognised for some legal purposes (see Polygamy in the United Kingdom).
  • In the United Kingdom a person guilty of bigamy is liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years, or on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding the prescribed sum, or to both.
  • United States: Illegal in every state. Penalty up to 5 years. (But see Polygamy in North America)
  • Uzbekistan: Illegal.
  • References

    Bigamy Wikipedia