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About Marriage

Marriage more complex than you thought

Story by CHRISTOPHER HART

We all think we know what we mean by marriage, don’t we – but actually, it’s something even experts find very hard to define. This is because ideas about marriage vary so much, both throughout history and today.

The children from such an arrangement are considered the offspring of her female “husband.” And so the family line continues.” Statute and customary laws often differ, too, such that same sex relationships are officially illegal in many countries, such as here, but many people elsewhere in the world happily recognise them. The Kamba women, for example, take on a ‘wife’ if they are unable to conceive. The ‘wife’s’ children are considered hers. Something similar happens in the Sudan, where a Nuer woman can marry another woman when her husband has no sons. She takes the place of a son in order to marry a ‘wife’. This ‘wife’ has sex with a man, whom her ‘husband’ must approve, until she gets pregnant Her children are considered the offspring of her female ‘husband’. And so the family line continues.

Among the Igbo of Nigeria and the Lovedu of South Africa, rich women take wives to enhance their social status. The reverse occurred among the Azande of Sudan, where male warriors took younger male ‘brides’. When a warrior retired from that role he would give up his male bride – often marrying the young man’s sister – who moved up into the warrior grade and took a young male bride in his turn.

In many societies, marriage is considered as more a relationship between groups than between individuals. So while romantic love between the couple is acknowledged, it’s not considered as important as the obligations the new couple acquire towards their in-laws. This is changing everywhere, of course as a result of modern influences, but it remains true that in many societies group obligations come first.

So in such cases, there are often arrangements to ensure the marriage continues after a spouse dies. The Luo for example practise leverate marriage, where when a man dies the wife is inherited by his brother. Many other societies do the same – such as in Tibet – so that the relationship between the groups continues. The Inuits of northern Canada, on the other hand, practise sororate marriage, where if a woman dies, her husband will marry her sister or another close female relative.

The rules of incest also vary around the world. It’s taboo everywhere, but definitions of forbidden relatives differ from culture to culture. So for example some societies distinguish between parallel and cross cousins. The distinction arises from whether the relationship in the parents generation is of the same or opposite sex. So for example your mother’s sisters and your father’s brother’s children are your parallel cousins, while your father’s sister’s and your mother’s brother’s children are your cross cousins.

The distinction is ignored in most westernised societies, but can be critical elsewhere. In fact in some societies you must marry your cross cousin if you have any, while marriage between parallel cousins is forbidden Thus, among the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil, men anticipate their eventual marriage to a cross cousin by calling her ‘wife’ from an early age. The call their male cross cousins ‘brother in law’. Yanomami women call their male cross cousins ‘husband’ and their female cross cousins ‘sister in law’.

There are more extreme examples. The Lakher of Southeast Asia do not permit a man to marry his father’s daughter by a second marriage, just as is the case in the West, but do permit a man to marry his mother’s daughter by a different father.

Ceremonies uniting couples vary widely – and are often completely customary, as is common here. While others prefer their marriages to be legalised by civil or religious ceremonies. But it’s usually one or the other – whereas in societies like the Arembepe of Brazil, these different forms of marriage are used to have multiple spouses – for example one common law, one civil and one religious – without anyone ever getting divorced! Plural marriages have always been common – and still are – all around the world. It’s Western societies that are unusual because of cultural traditions, Christianity and Roman Law – even though Roman Law recognised prostitution, concubines, homosexuality, sex outside marriage and with slaves. Marriage to more than one spouse at a time is always illegal in the West, but even so unofficial ‘extra’ partners are common. And because divorce is easy, serial monogamy is the rule, with many people having more than one legal partner during their lifetime.

But in many societies – including Kenya – we actually rather approve of multiple partnerships, don’t we – especially for men. The reasons for polygyny vary. In many countries, men marry later than women which means that there are more widows than widowers. And they remarry, often into polygynous households, as happens among the Kanuri of Nigeria. Some men become polygynous because they’ve inherited a widow from a brother. Others use marriage to cultivate alliances which increase their influence – or to display their prestige and wealth which in turn attracts yet more. It’s no wonder so many politicians are polygynous! And in many cases, such as the Igbo, it’s the women who arrange the marriages!

In practice though, around the world, relatively few men are officially polygynous because of the cost. And there are inevitably problems between the wives! So among the Betsileo of Madagascar, the wives always live in different villages. The king of the Merina, in the highlands of Madagascar, had a palace for each of his 12 wives in different provinces, which he visited on his travels.

Polyandry, marriages where one woman marries several men, is much rarer. Most of the world’s polyandrous societies are in Tibet, Nepal northern India, Sri Lanka and South Asia. In the Panari of northern India, for example, it’s common for a woman to marry a set of brothers. The marriage will be arranged by the oldest brother and additional wives might join later. All the women are joint wives and the children born to any of the women call all the brothers ‘father’. The number of wives is proportional to the amount of land the brothers own – and are uncommon in land-less families.

And there are other, even rarer customs. In the state of Kerala India, for example, the Nambudiri Brahmin caste traditionally practise the custom of henogamy in which only one (usually the eldest) son in each family is permitted to marry – basically in order to preserve the family property. So like so much in human life, marriage customs are fascinating – and not nearly as straightforward as they seem!

Dr Hart is a scientist and a psychologist based in Nairobi.

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