But the Magassas clearly are not an isolated case. Immigration to New York and other American cities has soared from places where polygamy is lawful and widespread, especially from West African countries like Mali, where demographic surveys show that 43 percent of women are in polygamous marriages.
Other women spoke bitterly of polygamy. They said their participation was dictated by an African culture of female subjugation and linked polygamy to female genital cutting and domestic violence. That view is echoed by most research on plural marriages, including studies of West African immigrants in France, where the government estimates that 120,000 people live in 20,000 polygamous families.
“The woman is in effect the slave of the man,” said a stylish Guinean businesswoman in her 40s who, like many women interviewed in Harlem and the Bronx, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If you protest, your husband will hit you, and if you call the police, he’s going to divorce you, and the whole community will scorn you.”
Islam is often cited as the authority that allows polygamy. But in Africa, the practice is a cultural tradition that crosses religious lines, while some Muslim lands elsewhere sharply restrict it. The Koran says a man should not take more than one wife if he cannot treat them all equally — a very high bar, many Muslims say.