Fraternal Polyandry: Common Wives of the Nyinba
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While over eighty percent of cultures around the world allow polygyny, or the marriage of one man to more than one woman, only four known cultures allow polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man (Pasternak, 1997). Even rarer is the practice of fraternal polyandry, or the marriage of a set of brothers to one wife, which is found exclusively in South Asia (Stockard, 2002). The Nyinba, an ethnically Tibetan patrilineal and patrilocal population that lives in the Humla District of Nepal, not only allow polyandry, it is the cultural ideal (Levine, 1997). While experts are still unsure whether the harsh environment of the Himalayas caused polyandry or not, the Nyinba have certainly adopted their way of life to the unique marriage structure. The Nyinba are raised to cooperate and share, match the ideal number of brothers to their economic opportunities, and divide their labor by gender, and each of these characteristics influences their marriage practices and gender relations.
Fraternal polyandry, or the marriage of a set of brothers to a common wife, is the cultural ideal for the Nyinba, and as such, a great deal of effort is applied to ensuring the marriages are stable. If a brother decides to divorce from his wife, and thus his brothers, then he is entitled to a portion of his father’s holdings, which in turn can mean economic disaster for the whole (Stockard, 2002). The land is incredibly unyielding, has been improved upon for generations, and once it is claimed and worked, there is little desire to split it up among sons, so parents raise their sons with cooperation as the foundation of their relationship (Levine, 1997). The adults understand that one man cannot provide as much for his family as two or three can, so the more working adult males in one household, the better the quality of life for all members. A father may be more closely related to his own son, but a grandfather is equally related to all his son’s sons and wants to see them all succeed, which is why he wants his sons to all cooperate and succeed as a whole, rather than as individuals. Sons are expected to share nearly everything, including their future wife. First sons are raised to treat their younger brothers in a manner that encourages cooperation, and younger sons are raised to cooperate with the eldest. Unlike in many other cultures, when the head of a household dies, the land and holdings are not split up among his heirs (Stockard, 2002). In this way, the Nyinba household functions more like a Western corporation. When the patriarch dies, the next man in line takes over. Nothing is split up or lost, it only has a new CEO, so to speak. Even with an upbringing that stresses cooperation over conflict and tries to minimize jealousy, one can imagine that having two brothers in the same economic sphere may spark some rivalry over which performs his tasks better, which is why three brothers is the cultural ideal.
Trifraternal polyandry, that of three brothers married to one wife, aligns perfectly with the three arenas of economy in which the Nyinba compete. They typically survived on labor-intensive plow agriculture in the unforgiving Himalayan valleys between nine and eleven thousand feet of elevation amid rocky terraces (Stockard, 2002). Small scale herding, or pastoralism, and a highly lucrative but unpredictable long-distance salt trade network round out the economic opportunities for the villagers (Levine, 1997). All three of these trades are performed by men, and households with many sons are able to diversify and take part in all three aspects, leading to a greater quality of life (Levine, 1997). Each of the three tasks are time consuming, and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to perform simultaneously, so having one husband performing each task is a definite boon to the family. The ability to have one focus on each economic opportunity is the reason that trifraternal polyandry is culturally the most valuable. However, the number of husbands in a marriage is dependent on the number of sons born to their parents and surviving to marrying age. For this reason bifraternal polyandry is actually the most common form (Levine, 1997). On the other hand, marriage to more than three brothers is considered “prone to discord,” is difficult to sustain, and women will try to avoid marrying into such a potentially hostile situation (Levine, 1997). For this reason, extra sons are often sent away, whether to a monastery or to seek their fortunes elsewhere (Levine, 1997).
As implied above, the division of labor in the Nyinba culture is by gender. Men perform the more prestigious, economically important work, while women perform much of the domestic work (Stockard, 2002). In agriculture, men work the plow and do the “heavy work,” better suited to the stronger sex, but women perform many of the less glorious, but still important, tasks like weeding and processing the grain (Stockard, 2002). All adults will assist in harvest, regardless of gender or normal duties (Stockard, 2002). Pastoralism and long-distance trade both require long periods of time away from home, which can interfere with pregnancy and child-care, which can account for the men’s assignment of those jobs as well. Women are responsible for child-care, all the cooking, hauling the water, and laundry for all her husbands and children (Stockard, 2002). Perhaps the most telling aspect of the prestige of women’s work is the fact that when slavery was still permitted, before 1926, slaves were only permitted to do the domestic work (Stockard, 2002). This was less a way to help the overworked wife deal with the mountain of work caused by multiplying the number of husbands and more an indication that the men’s work was too important and prestigious for slaves to perform. Slaves were forced away from any ideal situation as much as possible, including marrying uxorilocally and only monogamously, in stark contrast to the patrilocal and polyandrous marriages of the Nyinba (Levine, 1997). A polygynous husband is the exalted member of a marriage, but within polyandry, the wife does not share the same prestige. Rather she has the same duties and expectations as a monogamously married wife, multiplied by the number of husbands she has. She must also be able to balance the needs of all her husbands and minimize conflict within the home.
Marriage itself is a highly political activity, especially compared to Western habits of marrying for love alone. Parents will arrange a marriage once the eldest son is nearing maturity (Levine, 1997). The bride will leave her natal family, essentially cutting all ties with them. She is typically very young by Western standards, and often between the ages of the oldest two brothers (Levine, 1997). Weddings themselves are large, expensive affairs that can last days, and as such, parents in poor households may encourage their eldest son to elope, preventing the monetary burden from falling on the already struggling family (Stockard, 2002). The wife is married to the eldest brother, and the younger brothers are all included in the marriage, even if some of them have to wait for sexual maturity before they can experience all the facets of married life. Since he is the oldest, and his brothers may not yet be mature, the eldest brother may enjoy a relatively exclusive “honeymoon” period, leading to the likelihood of the first son being his own (Stockard, 2002). Eventually they will settle into some sort of rotation because the wife must make herself sexually available to all her husbands and ensure there is no favoritism expressed (Stockard, 2002). Children are an important piece of the in-family political game. While all children call all the men “father,” each child is attributed to a single man (Stockard, 2002). This plays a role in determining how much land a man is entitled to if he partitions, but more importantly, it can play a role in the satisfaction of a marriage. One of the most common reasons a man will choose to partition is because he does not have children or feels he does not have enough opportunity to have a child (Levine, 1987). A woman keeps close track of her menstrual cycle so that she has an idea of which man fathered her child, but she will sometimes attribute a child to another of her husbands if it will enhance the stability of the marriage (Levine, 1987). It has long been an anthropological assumption that a man feels more of a connection to his own child than to that of his sibling which is why the simple act of naming a father can have such an effect on the stability of a marriage. If a man feels he is working hard for his brother’s children, but has no children of his own, he may decide to split from the family so that he can enjoy the fruits of his own labor better. Another option is “conjoint marriage” (Levine, 1997). Lack of children or the large age difference between much younger brothers and the common wife are both common reasons for conjoint marriage due to dissatisfaction (Levine, 1997). The dissatisfied brother will find a second wife who is technically married into the group, but will, in practice, be more exclusive to that dissatisfied brother (Levine, 1997). These second wives are usually chosen out of affection rather than economic, political, or kinship reasons (Stockard, 2002). The most common reason, however, for conjoint marriage is infertility on the part of the wife (Levine, 1997). The cultural imperative is to create sons to carry on the biological line and take care of the family’s estate, so the failure to create children is reason to have a second wife join the family as a shared wife like the first. In this case, the preferred choice of a second wife is the sister of the first wife, called sororal polygyny, because it is believed that the blood relation will minimize jealousy and conflict (Levine, 1997; Stockard, 2002). If a woman decides to divorce, there are two courses of action available to her. She can claim her dowry and return to her natal home, which is usually only an option if she has not yet had children, and is likely not a desirable outcome regardless, as we will see (Levine, 1997). The other option is to live in a small home in a corner of her former husbands’ land, supported by her children (Levine, 1997).
There is a vast difference between the perceived worth of boys and that of girls. In a polygynous society, one man can impregnate many women leading to large families. In polyandry, however, one woman can only have so many children which leads to a natural curbing of the population in a Nyinba village. Since more men typically means more diverse and successful economic opportunities for the family, the birth of a son is a celebrated event. On the other hand, due to the limited number of pregnancies, and the fact that a woman is only useful to her husbands, the birth of a daughter is a disappointment. Female children often suffer from a sort of neglect when her brothers get the most nursing, the best food, and other benefits of being male, and as such, female children are less likely to survive to adulthood (Stockard, 2002). An unmarried spinster daughter is seen as an unwanted distraction for the common wife to deal with, rather than an ally, and as such, they are often married out to other villages in Nepal or sent to a life of domestic service, often never seeing her natal family again, in either case (Stockard, 2002). Male children mean another generation of workers, while the absence of any boys could mean the downfall of a family. A generation with no sons is held at a disadvantage and may resort to culturally extreme measures, such as marrying a daughter uxorilocally (Levine, 1982). Sometimes one of the “extra” sons mentioned earlier will be disowned from his family and join his wife’s family instead (Levine, 1982).
The Nyinba are raised to cooperate and share, match the ideal number of brothers to their economic opportunities, and divide their labor by gender, which all leads to a unique marriage custom and a definite habit of favoring males over females. With three intensive economic opportunities available to the Nyinba through agriculture, herding, and trade, three men are needed to diversify and be successful. Knowing that three men can provide for a set of children better than one man can, the Nyinba raise their sons to be cooperative and place family above self. Still, children can destabilize a marriage if one man feels that he is not being represented fairly, and the common wife may use the opportunity of naming the father of a new child as a political method of increasing the stability of their relationship. There are many reasons a man may be dissatisfied with the conditions of his marriage, the most common being that he has no children of his own, or no opportunity to have children of his own. A large age difference between the wife, who is between the two eldest brothers in age, and a younger brother may also cause dissatisfaction. When a man is dissatisfied, he can partition, or divorce, and take the land that is rightfully his on a per stirpes basis, or he may be able to bring a second wife into the marriage. Typically these group marriages, or polygynandry as Levine calls it, are due to infertility on the woman’s part, in which case they will look first to the wife’s sister in sororal polygyny to match the fraternal polyandry. Male children are valued so much more highly than female children that women are less likely to survive to adulthood. Regardless, unmarried women and sons born after the first three are likely to be sent away from their homes to monasteries and other villages because they are seen as a detriment to the overall success of the family. It seems as though the reason polyandry, and especially fraternal polyandry is so rare is because it requires a combination of difficult environment and cultural determination.
Levine, N. (1982, June). Belief and Explanation in Nyinba Women’s Witchcraft. Man, 17(2), pp. 259-274. Retrieved August 24, 2012 from JSTOR.
Levine, N. (1987, June). Fathers and Sons: Kinship Value and Validation in Tibetan Polyandry. Man, 22(2), pp.267-286. Retrieved August 24, 2012 from JSTOR.
Levine, N. & Silk, J. (1997, June). Why Polyandry Fails: Sources of Instability in Polyandrous Marriages. Current Anthropology, 38(3), pp. 375-398. Retrieved August 24, 2012 from JSTOR.
Pasternak, B., Ember, C. & Ember, M. (1997). Sex, Gender, and Kinship: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Stockard, J. (2002). Marriage in Culture: Practice and Meaning Across Diverse Societies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
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