Polygamy allows marriage to more than one person at the same time. The practice of polygamy, or plural marriage, includes polygyny and polyandry. Polygyny allows men to marry more than one woman simultaneously. It is much more common than polyandry, which allows women to take multiple husbands. Polyandry is practiced in only a few cultural groups in Nepal, India, and Tibet.
Polygamy appears once to have been widely practiced, but is less common today, yet it is practiced still in some Muslim countries and parts of Africa. In most of the world’s contemporary societies, especially where divorce is common and easy to achieve, polygamy is illegal. Although some cultures legally allow polygyny, most North Americans practice serial monogamy where one may have more than one spouse in a lifetime, but never more than one legal spouse at a time. In polygynous societies, such as the Mormon Latter Day Saints or Arabic-speaking Muslim societies, polygyny is indicative of a man’s wealth or heightened social status.
Jealousy is a serious threat to the polygynous lifestyle. In sororal polygyny, sisters become cowives because society believes that since they have grown up together, sororal cowives will get along and cooperate better. In societies where the cowives are nonsororal, cowives often establish their own living quarters or households. Additionally, customs which include clearly defined economic, sexual, and familial rights also help reduce jealous feelings. For example, senior wives most commonly maintain special prestige in the polygynous family.
Polygyny was advantageous in societies where pregnancy dictated sexual abstinence. Where postpartum sex taboos existed, new mothers were required to abstain until the child was weaned from the mother’s breast. Polygyny was also seen in cultures with an abundance of marriageable women. For example, in postwar societies where many men have died in battle, excess populations of women remain who seek husbands. Other times, men simply choose to marry later in life, again leaving an abundance of women available for marriage.
The other form of polygamy is polyandry. This much less prevalent practice allows women to have multiple husbands. If the cohusbands are brothers, it is called fraternal polyandry. When a woman becomes the wife of some or all the brothers in a family, the biological paternity of her children are of no particular concern. For example, Tibetans who practice fraternal polyandry do not attempt to indicate any one brother as a biological father. All children are treated the same, and they consider all the cohusbands to be “father.”
The reasons that a society practices polyandry are similar to those for polygyny. In some societies, there may have been a shortage of women, which may be linked to female infanticide. Polyandry might also be a response to severely limited resources. For example, to avoid the division of a family farm, brothers will share a wife and preserve the family farm. Polyandry also helps minimize population growth so that standard of living in a polyandrous family would be better than in a non-polyandrous family, or in a family run by an unmarried woman.
- Bartholomew, R. (1995). Audacious women. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books.
- Broude, G. (1994). Marriage, family and relationships: A cross-cultural encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Fox, R. (1987). Kinship and marriage: An anthropological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Ogden, D. (1999). Polygamy, prostitutes and death: The Hellenistic dynasties. London: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales.
- Tracy, K. (2002). The secret story of polygamy. Naperville, IL.: Sourcebooks.