Polyandry

Polyandry

Polyandry is a form of polygamy in which one woman is married to several men. It's occurance is rare and assumes a specific concentration in the Himalayan areas of South Asia. However, it is sporadically distributed in Africa, Oceania, and Native America. Two forms have been recorded: fraternal polyandry in which a group of brothers share a wife, and non-fraternal polyandry in which a woman’s husbands are not related. The Nayar case discussed in another section represents a non-fraternal form in the sense that a woman engages in sexual relations and has children with several different men, any of whom may be called upon to acknowledge paternity. Fraternal forms are common in the mountainous areas of Nepal and Tibet. Among the Tibetian Nyinba, brothers live together throughout their life times in large patrilineally constructed households. They share a common estate and domestic responsibilities. They also share a common wife with whom each maintains a sexual relationship. Generally, each child of the marriage is acknowledged by and develops a special relationship with one of the possible fathers, even where biological paternity cannot be determined. This arrangement can partially be understood as a response to a shortage of women due to a lower survival rate in comparison to men. It also has important economic implications. Since brothers share a wife, their joint estate remains intact from generation to generations and is not subject to the fragmentary and inefficient divisions that might occur if each belonged to a separate conjugal unit (Stone 1997:190-192)

Polyandry is generally found in areas where difficult physical environments or high populations impose extreme pressures on agricultural systems. It works to limit population growth and to ensure the coherence of agricultural estates. Some theorists suggest that this institutions more often occurs in societies in which women hold relatively high social status (Stone 1997:194). However, it does not reflect the same stratification pattern as polygyny, since a woman’s social position and prestige are not determined by the number of husbands she can amass. Female status is more apparently marked in woman-woman marriage options in polygynous societies.

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© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: October 2003