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The Other Side of Polyandry (Property, Stratification and Non Marriage in the Nepal Himalayas)

The Other Side of Polyandry (Property, Stratification and Non Marriage in the Nepal Himalayas)
Item Code: NAN476
Author: Sidney Ruth Schuler
Publisher: Mandala Book Point, Nepal
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9789994655298
Pages: 215
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Back of the Book

In the late 1970’s, a small group of Nepali and western social anthropologists collaborated in a comparative study of woman’s roles and status among ethnic groups of the mountains, middle hills and plains of Nepal. The Himalaya culture of “Chumik”, documented in this ethnography, stood out from the others in the importance of woman’s economic roles as well as their freedom of movement as traders, innkeepers and seasonal laborers. The women of Chumik were more “empowered” than their sisters in other ethnic groups based on a variety of measures. Yet, as this study shows, gender inequality and social exclusion were central features in the society and the economic system that sustained it. This ingenious study illustrates how woman’s position in society can be both “high” and “low”, depending on which categories of women are considered, and whether they are married. The descriptions of exotic marriage customs such as fraternal polyandry and marriage by capture make compelling reading. I highly recommend this book for both scholars and lay readers interested in exploring systems of gender and social stratification and the anthropology of Nepalese and Tibetan cultures.

About the Book

Written years before the concepts of gender inequality and social exclusion gained widespread currency in the field of international development; this important book provides a fine-grained analysis of these social processes. The parallels between Tibetan marriage systems and marriage in pre-industrial Europe (large numbers of unmarried adult woman were a common feature of both) are particularly intriguing in the context of South Asia, where marriage often takes place at early ages and is virtually universal. This study is a critical document for scholars interested in Tibetan culture and the anthropology of Nepal. The book’s engaging style also makes it accessible for visitors to Nepal and Mustang seeking to enrich their experiences of local cultures.

About the Author

A social anthropologist trained at Harvard University, Dr Sidney Ruth Schuler is currently affiliated with FHI 360, a US-based nonprofit organization working in international health and human development. As founder and director of the Empowerment of Women Research Program, she has done extensive work of issues of gender, marriage reproductive health, women’s empowerment intimate partner violence and client and community perspectives on health in international settings. Her work has been widely published and cited.


This ethnographic case study conducted in the late 1970s explores the small Tibetan society of "Chumik" (Baragaon in Nepali) between the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges of the Nepal Himalayas. At that time, nearly a quarter of all adult women in Chumik had never married-a truly remarkable phenomenon more akin to marriage patterns in modern industrial societies of the West than to those in most of South Asia, where marriage is virtually universal. (According to a 2014 survey, about 20% of both men and women ages 25 and above in the USA had never been married, and this percentage is expected to increase-Pew Research Center, 2014). The study illustrates how exotic marriage customs-fraternal polyandry and marriage by capture-interact to produce a social system in which a remarkably large section of the population is marginalized. Unmarried women, especially those whose mothers were also unmarried, inhabited the lowest tier.

As the book points out, Tibetan polyandry is not the opposite of polygyny, in which a man decides to take multiple wives. Rather, a family with multiple sons decides to take a single wife for them and the family's property remains intact. (Daughters inherit landed property only when there are no sons.) And in marriage by capture, which was also common in Chumik, it is always the man who captures the woman, never the other way around. As there would be no need to capture a woman with whom a marriage could just as well be arranged by the parents (a marriage between social equals), the practice of marriage by capture creates a pattern in which women often marry below their social station. As a result, the women who did not marry tended to be those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. Any children these women had were defined as illegitimate. Lacking social status, inheritance rights and the resources to engage in petty trade or buy land, both the unmarried women and their children served as a convenient source of cheap labor for landed families.

Chumik's system of social and gender inequality provides a striking contrast to the stereotype of the powerful and autonomous Tibetan woman that early explorers and scholars of Tibet and other Himalayan Tibetan cultures frequently depicted (Bell, 1928; Peissel, 1968; Peter, 1963). What they described may have existed, but as the exception not the rule. These almost-exclusively male adventurers likely stayed in the wealthiest homes, in which the wives who successfully managed their polyandrous marriages often did in fact come to wield considerable power and influence, including over the unmarried women who were polyandry's byproduct. Many of the studies by these intrepid foreign men have provided valuable documentation of Tibetan Buddhism, both esoteric and as commonly understood and practiced, as well as of the feudal political system in which it thrived (Carrasco, 1959; Goldstein, 1971a, 1971b; Rockhill, 1981; Stein, 1972). However, they seem to have failed to ask about the women inhabiting the edges of the system, cooking, cleaning, spinning and weaving, fetching water and firewood, tending animals, and working in the fields of their brothers and other relatives, often reimbursed only with meals, often living in small rooms resembling animal sheds attached to someone's main house, and compelled to do migratory labor after the fields in their village had been harvested. More recent studies have tended to emphasize an economic rationale for polyandry (Goldstein, 1971b, 1976, 1981; Levine, 1977), but they too have paid little attention to "the other side of polyandry" -the exploited underclass of unmarried women and their illegitimate offspring that polyandry produces.

By some measures, though, gender inequality was (and is) less pronounced and the lives of women less constrained in Chumik than in many other South Asian societies. Although unmarried women and illegitimate people of both sexes were economically disadvantaged and (literally) sat at the bottom of the line on ritual occasions, they were by no means ostracized. Perhaps because there were so many of them, this would not have worked. Chumik had, and still has, no caste system with concepts of purity and pollution dividing high and low, rich and poor; people who were labeled as illegitimate, and women with illegitimate children, frequently ate, slept, worked, gossiped and joked with the families who employed them. Chumik (and Tibetan culture in general) also lacks a strong gender ideology justifying discrimination against women. Women are not construed in dualistic terms such as virgin/whore (as in many traditional Christian societies-Freud, 1962, Ruether, 1974), or sacred sister/dangerous wife (as in many Hindu societies-Bennett, 1983), nor is there a cultural obsession with guarding female sexuality to protect family honor, as in many Muslim societies (Sever and Yurdakul, 2001). In contrast to many South Asian societies, in Chumik, women's physical mobility and their freedom to work and earn a living is not constrained by the shared notion that they must be closely guarded for their own protection.

The absence of such gender-based restrictions in Chumik makes the present a very interesting time in the- evolution of Chumikwa society. With increased educational, travel and economic opportunities open to girls and women, will high rates of nonmarriage persist? Will women's increased assets make them more likely to marry (within or outside Chumik), or will the traditional social legitimacy of nonmarriage help to perpetuate this custom even when women have more choice in the matter?

This edition includes a post-script based on a visit to Chumik 30 years after the original study. Additional data collected by Ms. Laxmi Gurung, daughter of the late Dorje Gurung who assisted in the original research, are presented in a discussion of the continuities and changes in Chumikwa marriage practices and the broader social system of which they are part.


ALTHOUGH LARGE NUMBERS of unmarried adults are a common phenomenon in the modern industrial societies of the West, early and universal marriage has prevailed in non-Western societies, in traditional societies generally, and especially in South Asia. The origin of the so-called "European pattern:' characterized by late marriage and a high proportion of people who never marry (Hajnal, 1953a, 1953b, 1965), is not fully understood. To the extent that it occurs in non-European societies it tends to be associated with economic modernization, but there is strong evidence to suggest that the pattern is not simply a consequence of modernization. Frequent abstention from marriage was common in much of Northern and Western Europe well before the Industrial Revolution, from the first half of the eighteenth century, or even earlier, through the course of some 200 years (Hajnal, 1965:112-113). Furthermore, with the "marriage boom" following World War II, the European pattern began to disappear in the West (Hajnal, 1953b; Dixon, 1966:41-42).

There is evidence that in some societies late marriage and nonmarriage occur as a response to economic and demographic pressures. High rates of nonmarriage in Ireland after 1840, for example, and late marriage during the first half of the twentieth century in Japan, apparently are associated with the efforts of families to increase agricultural productivity by consolidating landholdings and limiting subsequent division by means of primogeniture. Marriage was difficult for those without access to patrimonial land (Goode, 1963; Hajnal, 1965; Dixon, 1978). Clearly, however, since the economic and demographic squeeze is even more severe in much of Asia than it was, for example, in Ireland following the potato famine, historical and inter-societal variations in timing and incidence of marriage require a fuller explanation.

To a great extent demographic patterns reflect processes beyond the control of the individual. At the same time they are the outcome of individual and family decisions, decisions that take place within a nexus of perceived options and constraints, within a particular social context. This is particularly true of marriage patterns as opposed, for example, to patterns of mortality. The ability of historical demography to uncover the social contexts in which nonmarriage occurs is of course limited by the fact that it must rely on reconstruction, and in the contemporary world traditional societies with high incidences of nonmarriage among adults, and particularly women, apparently are rare. In any case the phenomenon has not been well described in the context of functioning social systems.

When the present study was conceived there was some evidence that the populations of remote, high altitude Tibet and the Tibetan societies of the Himalayas represent an exception to the traditional and non-Western pattern of early and nearly universal marriage. Recent studies had revealed the existence of substantial numbers of unmarried women in several small Tibetan societies in the Himalayas of northwestern Nepal (Goldstein, 1974; 1975, 1977a, 1977b; Levine, 1977; Ross, 1981). In Limi, for example, in the small Tibetan village studied by Goldstein (1976:223-233) where 38 percent of the marriages recorded were polyandrous, 20 percent of the women 35 years of age and above had never been married. The focus of their research being the effect of fraternal polyandry on aggregate levels of fertility, Goldstein and later Levine and Ross treated nonmarriage among women simply as a product of fraternal polyandry; they did not investigate no marriage as a phenomenon in itself.

The research upon which this study is based was intended to provide new demographic and ethnographic data on fraternal polyandry and nonmarriage, to explore the social and economic context of widespread nonmarriage and in particular its implications vis-a-vis the position of women in the society. The author conducted research in "Chumik," a small Tibetan society of about 2200 people, over a period of nearly three years, from late 1976 to mid-1979. While rates of marriage in Chumik were found to be consistent with those reported by Goldstein, Levine and Ross in northwestern Nepal, the data also suggest that in Tibetan societies nonmarriage among women is more than simply a demographic consequence of fraternal polyandry. In Chumik about 22 percent of the women 35 years of age and above, and 28 percent of those age 45 and above, had never been married. While this is similar to the rate of female non marriage reported by Goldstein for Tsang Village in Limi, the rate of polyandry in Chumik was found to be much lower than in Limi. In fact, it is too low to account for the high proportion of Chumikwa women who had never married. Religious celibacy, practiced by about seven percent of Chumikwa men and nine percent of the women ages 35 and above, is one factor related to non marriage that is absent in Limi but often practiced in Tibet proper. But even in terms of numbers alone, fraternal polyandry and religious celibacy cannot by themselves explain the high incidence of nonmarriage in Chumik, particularly since polygyny, albeit rare, also is an accepted practice.

Earlier writers on the subject have approached polyandry from a variety of perspectives, some in search of a more refined theory of marriage in general (e.g. Leach, 1955), others interested in its psycho-social "functions" (e.g. Prince Peter, 1963). And there has been some curiosity over sleeping arrangements: who sleeps where, when. Occasionally someone wondered what happened to the extra women, but this was rarely investigated in a systematic way as, for example, by means of a census. That fraternal polyandry was common throughout most of Tibet, and polygyny relatively uncommon is well documented, and unless sex ratios were extremely skewed in favor of men-for example, because of infanticide- there must have been substantial numbers of unmarried women in Tibetan communities. But in both the primary and secondary literature on Tibet such women are rarely mentioned, let alone counted; neither is their absence noted.


  Tables and Figures xi
  Foreword to the Second Edition xiii
  Acknowledgments xvii
  Maps xviii
  Introduction 1
  Conclusion 159
  Appendix I: Time Use Patterns in Chumik 163
  Appendix II: Typical Values of Household Assets in Chumik 165
  Appendin III: 71 Cases of Property Division Among Brothers 167
  Postscript 179
  Reference Cited 185
  Index 191

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