Polyandry (- many, andros- man) refers to a form of sexual union, in which a woman is married to two or more husbands at the same time.
The form of polyandry in which a woman is married to two or more brothers is known as "fraternal polyandry", and it is believed by many anthropologists to be the most frequently encountered form.
According to inscriptions describing the reforms of the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC), he is said to have abolished the former custom of polyandry in his country, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned with rocks upon which her crime is written.
Polyandry in human relationships occurs or has occurred in Tibet, Canadian Arctic, northern parts of Nepal, Bhutan, parts of India (Ladakh, Zanskar), the Nymba, and Sri Lanka, and is known to have been present in some pre-contact Polynesian societies, though probably only among higher caste women. It is also encountered in some regions of Mongolia, among the Mosuo people in China, and in some Sub-Saharan African such as the Maasai people in Kenya and northern Tanzania and American indigenous communities. Polyandry has been practiced in several cultures — in the Jaunsar region in Uttarakhand, among the Nairs, Theeyas and Toda of South India, and the Nishi of Arunachal Pradesh. The Guanches, the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, practiced polyandry until their disappearance. In other societies, there are people who live in de facto polyandrous arrangements that are not recognized by the law.
Differences of interpretation
Polyandry is a controversial subject among anthropologists. For instance, Pennsylvania anthropologist Stephen Beckerman points out that at least 20 tribal societies accept that a child could, and ideally should, have more than one father, referring to it as "partible paternity". On the other hand, in Tibet, which is the best-documented cultural domain within which polyandry is practised, the certain polyandrists themselves testify that the marriage form is difficult to sustain.
In Tibet, polyandry has been outlawed, so it is difficult to measure the incidence of polyandry in what may have been the world's most "polyandrous" society.
In other parts of the world, most traditional societies have been drastically altered or destroyed, so the incidence of polyandry in the past may not be accurately known. In India, among Tibetan refugee groups who fled the Chinese takeover of their country, polyandry is seldom encountered.
The Zo'e tribe in the State of Para on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil also practice polyandry.
The Hebrew Bible prohibits polyandry in, for example, Leviticus 20:10. For a woman to have sexual relations when she is married to another (which would include a situation such as polyandry) would constitute adultery, with the consequences that it would have on her status, as well as of her children from that relationship.
Islam also bans polyandry. In Islam the verse from the Quran that is typically used for a proof in this matter is Surah Nisa’ Chapter 4 verses 22 to 24, which gives the list of women with whom one cannot marry and it is further mentioned in Surah Nisa’ Chapter 4 verse 24. Nikah Ijtimah, a pre-Islamic tradition of polyandry, was forbidden by Islam.
There is at least one reference to polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic, Mahabharata. Draupadi marries the five Pandava brothers. This ancient text remains largely neutral to the concept of polyandry, accepting this as her way of life.
Some forms of polyandry appear to be associated with a perceived need to retain aristocratic titles or agricultural lands within kin groups, and/or because of the frequent absence, for long periods, of a man from the household. In Tibet the practice is particularly popular among the priestly Skye class but also among poor small farmers who can ill afford to divide their small holdings. As to the latter variety, as some males return to the household, others leave for a long time, so that there is usually one husband present.
Fraternal polyandry (from the Latin frater - brother) is a form of polyandry in which two or more brothers share one wife or more. It is also termed adelphogamy, but this term also has other meanings.
Fraternal polyandry is found in certain areas of Tibet and Nepal, where polyandry is accepted as a social practice.Levine, Nancy, The dynamics of polyandry: Kinship, domesticity and population on the Tibetan border, Chicago: 1988, University of Chicago Press. The Toda people of southern India practice fraternal polyandry, but monogamy has become prevalent recently.
Apart from the famous example of fraternal polyandry in the Mahabharata between the five Pandava brothers and Draupadi, there are other instances, both in Hindu history and folklore. In contemporary Hindu society, many social scientists have expressed a fear of critical compulsion of polyandry in the near future.
Fraternal polyandry achieves a similar goal to what primogeniture did in 19th-century England. Primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and seek their own employment. Primogeniture maintained family estates intact over generations by permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this, but does so by keeping all the brothers together with just one wife so that there is only one set of heirs per generation.
Observations and claims of polyandry
Africa- In the Lake Region of Central Africa, "Polygyny ... was uncommon. Polyandry, on the other hand, was quite common". "the Masai are polyandrous".
Europe- "According to Julius Caesar, it was customary among the ancient Britons for brothers, and sometimes for fathers and sons, to have their wives in common". "Polyandry prevailed among the Lacedaemonians according to Polybius." "(Polybius vii.7.732, following Timæus)" "the matrons of Rome flocked in great crowds to the Senate, begging with tears and entreaties that one woman should be married to two men".
Asia - In the reign of Urukagina of Lagash, "Dyandry, the marriage of one woman to two men, is abolished."
In Arabia - Felix (southern Arabia) "All the kindred have their property in common ...; all have one wife" whom they share.
"in certain cantons of Media, ... a woman was allowed to have many husbands, and they looked with contempt on those who had less than five."
Among the Hephthalites, "the practice of several husbands to one wife, or polyandry, was always the rule, which is agreed on by all commentators. That this was plain was evidenced by the custom among the women of wearing a hat containing a number of horns, one for each of the subsequent husbands, all of whom were also brothers to the husband. Indeed, if a husband had no natural brothers, he would adopt another man to be his brother so that he would be allowed to marry."
"polyandry is very widespread along the Sherpas."
In Bhūtan, "polyandry is the prevailing domestic custom".
"A 1981 survey ... in Muli found 52% of the marriages engaged in monogamy, 32% practiced polyandry (brothers sharing a wife), and 16% practiced polygamy (sisters sharing a husband)."
The Hoa-tun (Hephthalites, White Huns) "living to the north of the Great Wall ... practiced polyandry."
Among the Gilyaks of Sakhalein Island "polyandry is also practiced".
Pacific islands - Among the Kanaka of New Caledonia “every woman is the property of several husbands. It is this collection of husbands, having one wife in common, that ... live together in a hut, with their common wife.”
Marquesans had "a society in which households were polyandrous".
South America - "The Bororos ... among them ... there are also cases of polyandry."
"The Tupi-Kawahib also practice fraternal polyandry".