Where in the world are polyandrists (women marrying multiple husbands)?

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED September 5, 2013
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Polygyny is so hot right now. (Thinkstock) Polygyny is so hot right now. (Thinkstock)

Polygyny (men marrying multiple wives) is so hot right now, pop culturally speaking. The success of HBO’s “Big Love,” which aired from 2006 to 2011, set off a reality show mini-chain reaction with TLC’s “Sister Wives” and its upcoming “My Five Wives,” along with National Geographic’s “Polygamy, USA,” which all portray multi-wife arrangements as slightly more complicated versions of everyday marriages. But where are the polyandry documentaries?

Polyandry, or women marrying multiple men, is much rarer than polygyny (“polygamy,” FYI, is a catch-all term referring to plural marriage, of which polygyny and polyandry are gender-specific subsets), but it does exist. In August, for instance, NPR reported on a Kenyan woman who was marrying two men, all of whom signed a prenup of sorts beforehand in order to “set boundaries and keep the peace.” The polyandrous arrangement generated headlines since that type of plural marriage doesn’t happen usually in Kenya.

In fact, most anthropological textbooks report that the tiny sliver of societies around the globe that practice polyandry are clustered in Tibet, Nepal and India and tend to be classified as either fraternal or non-fraternal. Among the Toda people in southern India, fraternal polyandry is the norm, with women marrying all of the brothers in a family, and just as the husband on “Sister Wives” switches up the bedroom he sleeps in on any given night, the brothers rotate who sleeps with the wife as well. Such a setup isn’t motivated by women not wanting to have to choose among brothers, as with the Kenyan woman marrying two fellows; fraternal polyandry often is a way of concentrating resources to farm land in remote areas.

That said, a 2012 study concluded, “although polyandry is rare it is not as rare as commonly believed, is found worldwide, and is most common in egalitarian societies.” A single academic abstract might not be as splashy as a network reality show, but its implications are significant, as Alice Dreger explained at The Atlantic:

Indeed, according to Starkweather and Hames, anthropologists have documented social systems for polyandrous unions “among foragers in a wide variety of environments ranging from the Arctic to the tropics, and to the desert.” Recognizing that at least half these groups are hunter-gatherer societies, the authors conclude that, if those groups are similar to our ancestors — as we may reasonably suspect — then “it is probable that polyandry has a deep human history.”

Rather than treating polyandry as a mystery to be explained away, Starkweather and Hames suggest polyandry constitutes a variation on the common, evolutionarily-adaptive phenomenon of pair-bonding — a variation that sometimes emerges in response to environmental conditions.

Still, the answer to “how often do women marry multiple husbands?” is not very often. At all. For comparison, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people “live a polygamist lifestyle,” PRI reported in 2010, which is likely more than the global population of polyandrous families. Too bad, really, for reality show producers out there because “My Five Husbands (Who Are Also Brothers)” would probably generate a in television ratings bonanza.

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