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Elkanah and his two wives

In cultures that practice marital monogamy, bigamy is the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another.[1] 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.[2][3] 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

Even 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.[citation needed] 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.[4][single source]

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.[citation needed]

Legal situation

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.[5]

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.[6]

By country

  • Australia: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.[7]
  • Belgium: Illegal. 5 to 10 years' imprisonment.[8]
  • Brazil: Illegal. 2 to 6 years' imprisonment.[9]
  • Canada: Illegal under the Criminal Code, sect 290.[10]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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.[12]
  • Germany: Illegal. Punishable by law.
  • Ghana: Illegal. Up to six months' imprisonment.
  • Hong Kong: Illegal. Up to 7 years of imprisonment.[13]
  • 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.[14] This section replaces section 26 of the Act 10 Geo. 4 c. 34 for the Republic of Ireland.[15]
  • Israel: Illegal. Up to 5 years' imprisonment.[16]
  • 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.
  • Indonesia: Depending on the specific tribe in question, bigamy can be legal or illegal.
  • 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.[17]
  • 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 art 376 of the Romanian Penal Code[18] and also prohibited under the 273 of the Civil Code of Romania[19]
  • 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,[20] 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.[21]


  1. ^ Merriam Webster:Bigamy
  2. ^ George Monger (2004). Marriage customs of the world: from henna to honeymoons. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. p. 31. ISBN 1-57607-987-2. Retrieved 2012-07-30. 
  3. ^ "Sex Offenses: Consensual - Bigamy". Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2009-05-10. 
  4. ^ Sara McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Press, 2012
  5. ^ Turley, Jonathan (3 October 2004). "Polygamy laws expose our own hypocrisy". USA Today. Retrieved 2012-07-30. 
  6. ^ Shaw, Malcolm Nathan (2003). International law (5th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 684. ISBN 0-521-82473-7. 
  7. ^ Marriage Act 1961, sect 94.
  8. ^ "strafwetboek" article 391
  9. ^ Penal code of Brazil, Art. 235
  10. ^ "CBC News in Depth: Polygamy". 2008-04-25. Archived from the original on 9 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  11. ^ Redactora, Myriam Amparo Ramírez (24 February 2001). "La Bigamia". El Tiempo (in Spanish). Retrieved 2012-07-30. 
  12. ^ "Icelandic Act on Marriage No. 31/1993". Icelandic Ministry of Justice. 2008-01-09. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  13. ^ "Offences Against The Person Ordinance Cap 212 s 45 Bigamy". Retrieved 2017-01-20. 
  14. ^ This list of repeals and amendments in the Republic of Ireland from the Irish Statute Book confirms that it remains in force.
  15. ^ James Edward Davis. The Criminal Law Consolidation Statutes of the 24 & 25 of Victoria, Chapters 94 to 100: Edited with Notes, Critical and Explanatory. Butterworths. 1861. Pages 276 and 277.
  16. ^ Penal Law Amendment (Bigamy) Law, 5719 (1959). This applies to members of each confessional community, including the Jewish and Muslim. The English Law of Bigamy in a Multi-Confessional Society: The Israel Experience by P Shifman.
  17. ^ "Malaysia". Islamic Family Law. Emory Law School. Retrieved 2012-07-30. 
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ The Offences against the Person Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict. c.100), section 57; the Criminal Justice Act 1948 (11 & 12 Geo.6 c.58), section 1(1)
  21. ^ The Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (c.43), section 32(1)
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