The History of Polyandry and should SA legalise it?
The recent polyandry debate has ignited robust debate all over the country, in parliament and social media alike. Last month the Department of Home Affairs gazetted a green paper for the Marriage Act in which one of the proposals was the addition of polyandry into the legal marriages permitted in South Africa. On one side the argument being that it is in line with the principles of equality before the law, as men are permitted to take more than one wife under customary law in a polygamous arrangement. On the other hand, those who oppose the introduction of polyandry argue that it is against cultural norms and religious practices. The main issue being, how will children be identified? How will we know which man fathered which child? Either DNA tests will have to be administered or will a matriarchal head change how surnames are given to the children? The other issue raised was which man will have the priority conjugal rights? What if more than one husband would like to be intimate with their shared wife? However, in our postmodern feminist understanding this problem is easily solved; whomever the woman chooses. The green paper however, is just a proposal and open for public commentary until the 30thof June 2021.
So what is the history of Polyandry
The word polyandry comes from Greek where “poly” means many and andros denotes “man”. It is one of three marriages involving multiple spouses in a polygynous agreement. The second being the more common, polygamy in which a man has chosen to take many wives and third, a group marriage where the multiple men marry multiple wives, all members being sexually available to one another. This type of marriage is not exclusively heterosexual.
Historically polyandry has occurred in communities where resources such as farmland are scarce. Therefore the most common kind of this union is fraternal polyandry, in which one woman marries brothers. In this case it is better for the family to keep the farmland together and not be split into smaller unsustainable units if the brothers were to have separate households. This kind of polyandry was practiced by people living on the plains of Tibet, though the practice has been outlawed since the Chinese occupation.
Polyandry is also practiced informally by the Bari people of Venezuela where there is a cultural understanding of multiple fatherhood. It is customary for a child to have two fathers as both these men have entered into intimate relations with the mother and are known as her legitimate and socially accepted lovers. In this case the child’s chances for survival are improved with the concept of shared fatherhood.
Polyandry has also been known to be practiced in some parts of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and Brazil.
Will polyandry make women more free?
The institution of marriage is a central custom that organises how the family is structured in society. This, in turn, influences how society is organised. The addition of polyandry to legal marriages would blow the roof off of the man being the central authority in marriage and therefore society.
We live in a patriarchal society, both locally and globally. This bill directly challenges that notion and gives women the power to be the central figure in a polygynous marriage. Will this right extend to women being seen as traditional leaders with equal power in customary settings? I think if we were to seriously consider polyandry it would mean incorporating it into our customary law as a variant of polygamy.
Complexity within the feminist perspective
City Press’s (23/05/2021) Maggie Modipa argues that the introduction of polyandry under the equal rights principles enshrined in the constitution, would be a distraction to the real woman empowerment issues faced in the country. These include economic disparity, female unemployment, fair access to education and gender based violence. She argues that the “polyandry proposal trivialises [the] women’s struggle” in our country. She goes on to say that Ma Charlotte Maxeke would roll over in her grave if in the year intended to honour her saw “her most cherished dreams… deferred and distracted by the polyandry debate.”
It’s no doubt that people have become increasingly more open about dating multiple people with topics of side chicks and side baes trending on twitter. Women dating multiple men is a part of our reality. Perhaps polyandry would be a natural continuation of that. Personally I do think monogamy is more harmonious. But it is interesting to see how leadership will be socially constructed with the introduction of a traditional matriarchal head of a polygynous family.