Anthropologists have long recognized that marriage, while widely variable in meaning and form, is cross-cultural. One way that marriage varies pertains to the cultural norms dictating the appropriate number of spouses in the marriage. Monogamy is a marriage pattern where a person may only have a single spouse at a time. Polygamy is a marriage pattern that allows for multiple spouses. Polygamy comes in two main forms, polygyny and polyandry. In polygynous marriages a man is married to more than one woman at the same time. Polyandrous marriages, which occur in fewer than 5% of societies, involve the marriage of one woman concurrently to several men. Polyandry is the rarest form of marriage, having generally been found only in areas of Nepal, Tibet, India, and Sri Lanka. Each of the groups that practice polyandry differs somewhat regarding the relationship of the husbands to one another, paternity classifications, and socio-economic benefits of the marriage.
In some polyandrous societies, as with the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka, a woman marries men who are unrelated to each other. However, the most common form of polyandry, known as fraternal polyandry, involves the marriage of a woman to two or more brothers. For example, many ethnic Tibetans and the Toda of southern India have wedding ceremonies for a woman and the oldest of a group of brothers, but all of the brothers, even those not yet born, will be considered married to the bride. All will live together to form a family unit.
Another important consideration is sexual access to the wife and recognition of resulting paternity. Most ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and Nepal share sexual access to the wife. Jealousy seems diminished due to solidarity of the brothers. For the Tibetan Ladog people of Nepal, for example, equality of sexual and procreative rights of all brothers is stressed. For the Tibetan Gyaling people of Nepal, the elder brother is the primary husband and father, and the wife is only obliged to have sex with him. While she, nonetheless, typically engages in sexual relationships with the other brothers, they are not formally recognized as the genitors of any of their children. In contrast, for the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka, while the first husband remains the principal husband, all brothers share the status of father equally, regardless of actual paternity. For the Toda pastoralists of India, the oldest brother claims paternity rights of all children but shares social fatherhood, and associated rights and obligations, to the children.
We may ask what purpose such a rare form of marriage serves. It seems likely that polyandry prevents the division of scarce resources and land while limiting population growth. Successive generations of brothers will hold the land in common, taking a single wife, rather than dividing the land among several new nuclear families. The political and economic position of the household increases as the resources are concentrated and husbands can specialize in diverse forms of economic production (for example, herding, agriculture, and trade) or combine their efforts at a single form.
The future of polyandry is uncertain. A sharp decline of this marital practice has followed modernization and participation in a global economy. As men increasingly work for cash wages, it seems no longer practical to share resources, land, and a wife.
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