Beyond the typical idea of marriage being a union between a man and a woman, the nuptials concept has evolved over time to reflect various forms of marriage. Interestingly, some of these trends have resulted in women having more than one partner – this is referred to as polyandry. Although this form of marriage might not be as popular as its counterpart, polygyny – the marriage between one man and several women, it still holds some form of credence all around the world.
Explaining The Concept Of Polyandry
You’ve probably heard about polygamy as the marriage between one man and two or more women, well that is correct but it’s only a third of the definition. Polygamy is in fact a marriage that involves multiple participants of either gender and even both; it has 3 forms which include:
- Polygyny: Marriage between one man and several other women
- Polyandry: Marriage between one woman and multiple men
- Group Marriage: An occurrence where multiple men and multiple women are married to one other.
Among these 3, one of the rarest which is gradually gaining prominence is polyandry, the phrase comes from the Greek words ‘polys’, which means “many,” and ‘ándras’, which means “man.” Hence, it literarily translates to many men. In simple terms, polyandry refers to a woman having multiple sexual partners, which in most cases she is legally or traditionally married to.
Fraternal Vs Non-Fraternal Polyandry Marriage
There are 2 major types of polyandry marriage which are fraternal polyandry and non-fraternal polyandry but of these 2, it is believed that fraternal polyandry is more popular. This is because such unions allow a man’s wife to be considered the wife of all his brothers as well and they are also permitted to have sexual contact with her. This sort of marriage is practiced in India’s Punjab, Ladakh, Sikkim, Assam, and Tibet region in China. However, in this case, the children are considered the eldest brother’s offspring.
On the other hand, non-fraternity unions involve one lady getting married to multiple men, but these husbands do not have to be brothers. In the case of determining the children’s paternity, a traditional rite is performed, and the children’s parents are chosen. This form of marriage was common among Arabs before the prophet’s time.
What Was the First Known Case of Polyandry?
Polyandry has happened in human communities all across the world, at all levels of social stratification. While the classical situations that emerge in Southeast Asia have been extensively studied, the non-classical situations have received little attention. However, it is believed that polyandry has been practiced as far back as wherever human origin can stretch. More so, the vast majority of societies that practice this form of marriage are bands or tribes that engage in hunting and gathering which further supports the speculation that polyandry started with the primitive tribe.
As of recent developments, there have been 2 popular places where polyandry is very common and they are the Plateau of Tibet – which is the region where India, Nepal, and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China have common boundaries and the Marquesas Islands located in the South Pacific. More so, sometime in 2012, a team of anthropologists reportedly discovered 53 other nonclassical communities in North America, South America, and other places across the world that practice different forms of polyandry.
Which African Countries Consider Polyandry Unions As Legal?
Both men and women are allowed to have multiple spouses under Gabon’s penal code; however, in practice, only men do so. The rule, in this case, requires that the pair specify if they want to pursue a polygamous relationship in the future before entering into a marriage contract. Although men can change their minds and choose polygamy in the future, women do not have this option.
South Africa is also considering legalizing polyandry and as of May 2021, the Department of Home Affairs published a new green paper for the Marriage Act. The recognition of polyandry is one of the proposals in the gazette and when it is confirmed, this would allow a lady to marry multiple men simultaneously.
Is Polyandry a Legalised System of Marriage in the United States?
Over the years, the federal government of America has enacted various regulations that make being married to more than one spouse illegal. Many of these laws were actually enacted throughout the 19th century, in response to what was perceived to be a moral threat represented by Mormonism. More so, since these laws are simply moral in nature, they are increasingly being challenged in court using arguments similar to those used to decriminalize homosexual activities and allow same-sex marriages.
A school of thought holds that current legal trends in favor of same-sex weddings and other formally illegal sexual practices may have the unintended consequence of legalizing bigamy. Others, however, are concerned that liberalizing marriage rules, particularly those relating to polygamy could allow other criminalized behavior linked to bigamist religious traditions to flourish. So, as of now, polyandry is not legal in the US, however, it may soon be if liberal trends are anything to go by.
Other Places In The World Where Polyandry Is Practiced
In India, multiple tribes practice polyandry but the notable ones include the Paharis in the Jaunsarbawar region of North India, and a small group of people in Kinnaur, Himachal. They believe they are obligated to carry on the tradition as descendants of the Pachi Pandavas (five brothers who were married to a woman named Draupadi, daughter of King Panchala).
Fraternal polyandry is widely practiced among Tibetans in Nepal and other parts of China. It’s predicated on the idea that a kid can have several fathers, and that when two or more brothers marry the same woman, they all have equal sexual access to her. More so, if a family is destitute and unable to split their property among the children of separate fathers, this practice is encouraged. So they marry the same woman and maintain their little farmlands and properties.
In other parts of Asia you will find this practice among the:
- Gilyaks people of northeast Asia
- Nayar people of India
- Paliyans of south India
- Bang Chan people of Thailand
- Punans of southeast Asia
- Sakai people of Indonesia
- Semang people of Malaysia
- Subanu people.
Several countries in Africa are also practitioners of polyandry unions and they include:
- !Kung people of South Africa
- Bahuma people of western Uganda and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Canarians from the coast of northwest Africa
- Irigwe people of central Nigeria
- Lele people of the Democratic Republic of Congo
- Massai people of central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania
- Dieri people
- Chuuk people
- Lamotrek Atoll people
- Malekula people
- Aleuts of Alaska, USA
- Sugpiaq of Alaska
- Blackfoot people of northeast USA
- Cherokee people of the USA
- Copper Eskimos of Canada
- Iglulik of northern Canada
- Innu people of Quebec and northern Labrador
- Iñupiaq people of Canada
- Mackenzie River Eskimo of Canad
- Netsilik people of Canada
- Paviotso people of USA
- Pawnee people of the USA
- Point Hope Eskimo of USA
- Polar Eskimo
- Pomo people of the USA
- Shoshoni of southeastern Califonia
- Tikerarmiut people
- Tlingit people
- Utes of Utah
Polyandry was also practiced by South American tribes, such as the Bororo, and up to 70% of Amazonian societies may have believed in the notion of multiple paternity. Fraternal polyandry is also practiced among the Tupi-Kawahib.
Other tribes in South America that practice polyandry include the:
- Ache people
- Aymara people
- Barí people
- Canela people
- Cashinahua people
- Cubeo people
- Guaja people
- Kulina people
- Mehinaku people
- Panoan Matis people
- Suruí people
- Yanomamö people
- Zo’e people