A Cross Cultural Perspective of Polygyny
As an institution, polygyny, the social arrangement that permits a man to have more than one wife at the same time, exists in all parts of the world. From our present knowledge, there are very few primitive tribes in which a man is not allowed to enter into more than one union. In fact, ethologists now believe that only one to two percent of all species may be monogamous (Tucker). None of the simian species are strictly monogamous; our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, practice a form of group marriage.
Among the 849 human societies examined by the anthropologist Murdock (1957), 75% practiced polygyny. Many peoples have been said to be monogamous, but it is difficult to infer from the data at our disposal whether monogamy is the prevalent practice, the moral ideal, or an institution safeguarded by sanctions (Malinowski 1962).
Historically, polygyny was a feature of the ancient Hebrews, the traditional Chinese, and the nineteenth-century Mormons in the United States, but the modern practice of polygyny is concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, India, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The extent to which men are able to acquire multiple wives depends on many factors, including the economic prosperity of the man’s family, the prevailing bride price, the differential availability of marriageable females, the need and desire for additional offspring, and the availability of productive roles for subsequent wives. Even in societies that permit polygyny, the conditions of life for the masses make monogamy the most common form of marriage.
The two variations of polygyny are sororal (the cowives are sisters) and nonsororal (the cowives are not sisters). Some societies also observe the custom of levirate, making it compulsory for a man to marry his brother’s widow. It must be remembered that any form of polygyny is never practiced throughout the entire community: there cannot exist a community in which every man would have several wives because this would entail a huge surplus of females over males (Malinowski 1962). Another important point is that in reality it is not so much a form of marriage fundamentally distinct from monogamy as rather a multiple monogamy. It is always in fact the repetition of marriage contract, entered individually with each wife, establishing an individual relationship between the man and each of his consorts (Benson 1971).
Where each wife has her separate household and the husband visits them in turn, polygynous marriage resembles very closely a temporarily interrupted monogamy. In such cases, there is a series of individual marriages in which domestic arrangements, economics, parenthood, as well as legal and religious elements do not seriously encroach on each other. The polygyny with separate households is more universally prevalent. Among the great majority of the Bantu and Hamitic peoples of Africa, where the number of wives, especially in the case of chiefs, is often considerable, each wife commonly occupies a separate hut with her children, and manages an independent household with well-defined legal and economic rights (Pasternak 1976). Where, on the other hand, as among many N. American tribes, two or more wives share the same household, polygyny affects the institution of matrimonial life much more deeply. Unlike wives in many other African groups who live in their own huts, Ijaw wives have apartments within one large structure and our brought into much more frequent contact with their co-wives (Rosaldo 1974).
Various theories have been advanced to explain the cultural endorsement of polygyny. One of the earliest explanations was based on the notion that men have a greater disposition for variety in sexual partners than do women (Tucker). Many ethologists believe that there is a sociobiological imperative for men to have as many sexual partners as possible (Sayers). While this theory is of historical interest, there exists no empirical support for the greater sex drive of the male, nor is there any reason to expect the male sex drive to vary from one culture to another. Women are just as naturally interested in sex, perhaps even more so. Women can be multi- orgasmic and have a much broader range of sexual stimulation than men. Non-monogamy is reproductively savvy for males in order to spread their genes, and for females in order to improve the hardiness and genetic variety of their offspring (Benson).
It has also been suggested that polygyny as a marriage form evolved in response to lengthy postpartum sex taboos because polygyny provides a legitimate sexual outlet for the husband during this period of taboo (Whiting). Whiting discovered that societies dependent on root and tree crops (presumably low protein societies) are more likely to have a long postpartum sex taboo, and there did seem to be a statistical association between the presence of this taboo and a preference for polygyny. While men may seek other sexual relationships during the period of a long postpartum taboo, it is not clear why polygyny is the only possible solution to the problem, since the legitimation of sex does not depend exclusively on marriage. The problem could be alleviated by extra-marital alliances or masturbation.
The existence of a low sex ratio, a scarcity of men in relation to women, has also been offered as an explanation for the origin of this practice (Pasternak 1976). Polygyny maximizes the opportunities for females to marry in a society in which adult males are in short supply. The fact that the sex ratio at the same time of young adulthood is numerically balanced in some societies suggests that while a sex ratio imbalance may contribute to the development of polygyny in special cases, it is an incomplete explanation for the existence of polygyny in the majority of societies in the world. For example, plural marriage developed among the Mormons in Utah when, as in most of the western states of the United States, there was an excess of males.
The theory that has stimulated the most empirical investigation links the existence of polygyny to the productive value of the woman. According to this theory, the occurrence of polygyny is positively related to the extent to which women contribute to the subsistence bases of their respective societies (Pasternak 1976).
However, further research suggests that the relationship between women’s economic contribution and marriage form is more complex and that there exists a curvilinear relationship between women’s productive value and the existence of polygyny (Rosaldo 1974). Polygyny has been found to be a feature of economic systems where potential female contribution to subsistence is high (such as in gathering and agricultural economies). In many African communities, the chief derives his wealth from the plurality of his wives, who by means of the produce of their agricultural labor enable him to exercise the lavish hospitality upon which so much of his power rests. The practice has also been found in economic systems, however, where potential female contribution is low (such as hunting and fishing economies). It has been suggested that multiple wives are valued in the first instance, for economic reasons, while in the latter instance, they are valued for reproductive reasons in that the taking of multiple wives maximizes the potential to produce sons, who in turn make an economic contribution (Malinowski 1962).
A multitude of wives, however, may increase not only a man’s wealth but also his social importance, reputation and authority, apart from the influence of the number of his children. Hence, we find in many Bantu communities of Africa that the desire to have many wives is one of the leading motives in the life of every man; while the fact that in many Melanesian and Polynesian communities, polygyny is a prerogative and therefore the chief testifies to the social prestige attaching to it (Priso). Politically or socially stratified divisions within a society also favor the emergence of polygyny, since economic rights to women can be acquired, and since marriages can be used to create political alliances between unequal groups (Rosaldo).
While polygyny tends to be viewed by Western cultures as an instrument for the domination of women by men, the degree of autonomy experienced by women in polygynous unions varies within and among cultures. The degree of autonomy of each cowife is influenced by the availability of opportunities outside of the home, the degree to which she maintains contact with her family of origin, the availability of gainful employment, the degree of importance attached to the children she has produced, and her life cycle state. Benefits for the wives also include the sharing of economic and domestic responsibilities, the freedom that derives from living apart from the constant supervision of a husband, and the diminished pressure for constant sexual accessibility. For example in many African polygynous societies women gain economic autonomy through trading. Trading not only gives de facto independence from the husband’s authority (and may ease tensions between cowives), but also brings women together in extra-domestic cooperative groups such as trading associations (Benson 1971). Paradoxically, polygyny becomes attractive to both parties. For instance, in Africa a man who controls much land may marry several wives to work for him. Since he is providing only about half of their income, even a man of modest means can take several wives. In addition, women find polygyny helps lighten their work burden. In many cases, the first wife takes the initiative in suggesting that a second wife, who can take over the most tiresome jobs in the household, should be procured.
In the traditional African setting, marriage is a matter of considerable importance. It is through marriage that the constituent elements of society reproduce themselves and that groups and individuals further a complex strategy. Women play a crucial role in this process, since they gather and control other women as wives and companions for brothers, sons, and husbands. A husband chooses his first wife with care, since she is responsible for training all subsequent wives and organizing them, older children, clients, wards, and, in the past slaves, into an agricultural work force. The senior wife is responsible for producing the agricultural wealth of the household, and if her warrior husband is absent or preoccupied for long periods of time, it is she who often functions as the effective head of household. Even though a husband may marry younger, more beautiful wives, he continues to regard his “big wife” with great respect and consideration (Rosaldo). In Mende, the head wife in a large polygynous household is given much religious as well as economic power. She organizes the agricultural work force, and stores and markets economic surpluses. Because of these roles, Mende head wives are seen as authority figures, and occasionally a chief’s head wife will succeed him in office even though she resides virilocally in his chiefdom and has no genealogical right to rule in the village of his kin (Tucker).
Jealousy, while not an inevitable consequence of polygyny, is reported in many polygynous societies. Tension is common when women are competing for goods and services from the husband and since each wife attempts to build a uterine family at the expense of her co-wives’ children (Rosaldo). Among the Kanuri of Bornu (part of a centralized Muslim state), women are married very young, often to middle-aged men. A woman’s ability to control a husband’s dominance depends on her ability to withdraw food and sexual services. A second wife is a considerable threat to her, resulting in less attention for her as well as for her children, and she loses some of her ability to gain compliance from her husband. However, Malinowski (1962) notes that jealousy among cowives is more a rivalry to secure maximum access to resources for themselves and their offspring than sexual jealousy. To minimize this conflict among cowives, a set of rules is often established that specifies responsibilities and rights concerning sex, economics, and personal possessions. A Patani man follows a prescribed order of sleeping with each of his wives, as does the Korokorosei husband, but the women differ in the scheduling of their domestic responsibilities to him. A Patani woman cooks and cares for her husband only when it is her turn to sleep with him. A Korokorosei woman must cook for her husband every day and perform domestic tasks for him whenever he asks. The presence of associations in Patani assists a woman in coping with difficulties in her co-wife relationships. The Korokorosei woman must resolve her own problems (Priso).
In group families the predominant themes is not swinging sex, however, the “swinging” label still may persist in areas where polygyny is not so common. A fundamental problem with parenting in such group’s stems from the social stigma attached to “deviant” life-styles. There are obvious difficulties in raising children in a social environment so extensively criticized or condemned, especially when the parents realize that their children may grow up alienated either from them or from the mainstream culture to which they eventually will be called on to adapt (Sayres).
Children in polygynous unions may be reared primarily by their mother, under the supervision of the senior cowife, or jointly with a system of rotation. Because the economic claims that many cowives make on their husbands are on behalf of their children, one of the advantages of occupying the position of senior wife is that the position carries with it preferential treatment for the offspring. The notion that mothers in polygynous unions develop extraordinary close ties with their children because of the father’s absence is not supported (Tucker). Although an African husband can expect to have his wife or wives supporting themselves and working for him, he has very little claim to his children. Female farming and polygyny are nearly always coupled with “matrilineal descent,” meaning that heritage is traced only through the mother’s line. Often children bear their mother’s name.
The result is that marriages are relatively transient and divorce is common. In African divorce, the husband obtains certain domestic and sexual services from the wife, but her other loyalties and her offspring always belong to her lineage (meaning her natal family). If there is divorce, the lineage will care for her and her children. She is not “absorbed” into her husband’s lineage. In Stanleyville (the Congo), well over half of those who had been married had also been divorced. According to one calculation, Hausa women (in Nigeria) average about three marriages between puberty and menopause. Eight out of ten persons over 40 years of age in a Yao village (Nyasaland) were found to have been divorced. In the Voltaic group of the Mossi, men who have migrated to neighboring Ghana may establish households with the Ashanti women but avoid marriage because the Ashanti matrilineal descent pattern would not let them take their own children back with them. In patrilineal or “dual descent” societies, by contrast, marriages are stable. Illegitimacy is also regarded differently since children belong to the mother’s line anyway. Early illegitimacy can even have a positive aspect, since it proves fertility. (Malinowski 1962)
Some believe that polygyny is linked with HIV and Hepatitis C. In places like Rwanda and Burundi, polygyny decreases infection by allowing women for whom there are not enough available marriageable mates (due to war, violence, imprisonment, etc.) to be married to the few available marriageable men and be sexually fulfilled without having to find sex promiscuously or turning to prostitution to find fulfillment or support themselves. Those who keep their sexual and body fluid activities within their bonded polygynous marriages do not spread or acquire HIV. The false hope placed in condoms (which have a 20% one-out-of-five failure rate according to the FDA and our Public Health Depts.) results in far more deaths from these diseases than such deaths from polygyny (Sayres).
Although antecedents to the occurrence and maintenance of polygyny vary from society to society, ideology and customs develop once polygyny is adopted that contribute to its perpetuation long after the original reason for the practice disappears.
In traditional societies that have encouraged plural marriages in the past, however, the trend is moving toward monogamy. In some cases, this movement occurs in stages, and in other cases, polygyny is permitted but discouraged by recognizing the first marriage as legal and relegating additional wives to the status of concubines. The explanation most commonly advanced for this movement away from polygyny is that monogamy is more compatible with industrialization (Benson 1971). Of course, the role of ideology and the banning of polygyny must also be considered as factors contributing to the decline of the practice.
Some American men take the position that monogamy protects the rights of women. However, are these men concerned with liberation movements from the suffragists of the early twentieth century to the feminists of today? The truth of the matter is that monogamy protects men, allowing them to “play around” without responsibility. Easy birth control and easy legal abortion has opened the door of illicit sex to woman and she has been lured into the so-called sexual revolution. Nevertheless, she is still the one who suffers the trauma of abortion and the side effects of the birth control methods. Taking aside the plagues of venereal diseases, herpes and AIDS, the male continues to enjoy himself free of worry. Men are the ones protected by monogamy while women continue to be victims of men’s desires. Polygyny is very much opposed by the male dominated society because it forces men to face up to responsibility and fidelity. It forces them to take responsibility for their polygynous inclinations, and protects and provides for women and children.
The bottom line in the marriage relationship is good morality and happiness, creating a just and cohesive society where the needs of men and women are well taken care of. The present Western society, which permits free sex between consenting adults, has give rise to an abundance of irresponsible sexual relationships, an abundance of “fatherless” children, many unmarried teenage mothers; all becoming a burden on the country’s welfare system. In part, such an undesirable welfare burden has given rise to a bloated budget deficit, which even an economically powerful country like the United States cannot accommodate. We find that artificially established monogamy had become a factor in ruining the family structure, and the social, economic, and political systems in this country.
Polygyny has been practiced by mankind throughout the world for thousands of years. It has been proven advantageous economically and politically for both males and females. Having other cowives lets women share the economic and domestic responsibilities of the household, it allows independence from the husband, and also the freedom from fulfilling constant sexual needs of the male. In some cases, polygyny allows women to achieve a higher status within her community that she normally could not achieve in a monogamous relationship. Polygamous relationships serve as an alternative to single loneliness, fatherless children, and increasing violence and juvenile crime in families where the father has left. Polygyny has proven itself to be an advantage to a host of societies and cultures.
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