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The Diversity Of Marriage and Culture

Updated on October 14, 2012

The Meaning of Marriage

The idea marriage in the West and the idea of marriage throughout the rest of the world are far more diverse then many assume. Generally the ideal notion of marriage in the West is a union based on love and mutual attractions that brings two people together to have offspring and form a nuclear family. These standards are under assault lately in the form of same sex marriage and to a lesser degree polygamy. World wide though, the idea of marriage is far broader. In many lands marriage is very much a cultural rite of passage. It brings the parties involved to a new social status. In addition the notion of love or the union of just two partners is not the norm. Often times marriages may consist of multiple women and a man, or less frequently multiple men and women. The overriding goal of marriage that seems to be fairly universal is the regulation of procreation, the orderly structuring of economic responsibilities and rites, and the unification of extended families. Within this definition there are many forms of marriage and I will consider just a few.

One common form of marriage is the polygamous union. In this structure typically there is one man and potentially several wives. This practice is ancient, and although slowly losing a footing it is still fairly common, particularly among non-westernized cultures. The fact I found interesting in regard to this type of arrangement is the diversity of the feelings about the practice among the women in the arrangement. In and article by Sangeetha Madhavan titles “best of Friends and Word of Enemies” considerable time is spent juxtaposing the Bamanan and Fulani of Mali in West Africa. Here the contrasts in the marital structure and the roles taken by the wife, showed a fascinating contrast in the acceptance by the women of the co-wife arrangement. With the Bamanan there was a healthy incidence of satisfaction and cooperation within the polygamous marriage, whereas with the Fulani women often expressed distain and jealousy over the occurrence of co-wives. Much of this acceptance or animosity was dependent on the overall social structure. With the Bamanan there was support and cooperation, and checks and balances of the men’s treatment of the wives, to allow for a productive implementation of this structure. In the case of the Fulani the structure, or lack of it, caused competition and jealousy. Overall the makeup in the Bamanan culture seemed to lend itself to a functional mechanism for the well-being of the family, with wives or co-wives providing valuable and often necessary support in the upbringing of children, and the spreading of domestic responsibilities over several women rather then one. With the Fulani the function seemed to be more of the desires of the male, although there where exceptions.

Another type of marriage that seemed to defy all notions of the arrangement to those in the west was the woman-to-woman marriage practiced in some African societies. These arrangements bare little or no resemblance to same sex partnerships that are more common in the west, rather they are a structure of power. Generally speaking according to R. Jean Cadigan these types of marriages occur in three circumstances. “1) barren women and widows take wives to obtain rights over children produced; 2) rich women accumulate wives to gain prestige and wealth in the same way men do through polygamy; and 3) in some societies where women have the right to have a daughter-in-law, women without sons can exercise their rights to a daughter-in-law by marrying a woman and giving her a non-existent son.” All of these though ultimately relate to wealth or social status. This practice seems to highlight in a clear light the true nature of marriage. It is often less a function of sexuality and more a social construction. It gives control over the labor of children and wives, it provides esteem within a culture.

The basic idea of marriage although containing universals, is constantly in a state of flux. Even within western nations the once common nuclear family is slowly being replaced by the prevalence of blended families, or even single parent families. Some of the characteristics of polygamy or woman-to-woman marriage are paralleled in the form or nannies, maids, or sitters, where there is an additional individual artificially added into a family that assumes many of the laborious responsibilities of the wife. Again these types of additions to the family are prevalent in direct proportion to the wealth of the woman of the household. The constant evolution of the idea of marriage is a fascinating field in constant flux and it a core part any anthropological study of a culture.


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    • NarcononVistaBay profile image

      NarcononVistaBay 5 years ago from California

      This is very interesting. I never heard about the woman-to-woman marriage before. But I can see how it relates to nannies, mother in laws, and grandparents to help taking care of the children.

    • Robin Cristy profile image

      Robin Cristy 6 years ago

      Wow! So interesting.