Female and male bush spirits, Côte d’Ivoire
The polygyny rate varies considerably among human populations, being highest (20 to 40% of all sexual unions) in the agricultural societies of sub-Saharan Africa and Papua-New Guinea.
Such high rates have consequences. The average man will have to wait for a wife until well into adulthood. The average woman will end up sharing her man with another woman. How are these consequences managed in a high-polygyny society? Surely there must be jealousy and frustration?
Many anthropologists, especially armchair ones, will deny there is any. What seems intolerable to us is quite normal to such societies.
This is half-true. Yes, people eventually resign themselves to most situations, especially if they see no alternative. The intolerable can become normal. But it would be false to claim that widespread polygyny creates no more than its fair share of frictions. Indeed, such frictions are much talked about in oral African culture.
This may be seen in a recent compendium of West African folk tales, Contes de l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Many of the tales have polygyny-related themes.
One theme is a woman’s resistance to sharing her husband with another woman. As the editor explains:
These tales are about conflicts that pit wives against the children of co-wives or about conflicts between co-wives. In this tale, the conflict pits the husband against his first wife, who does not want a co-wife. The tale, in keeping with tradition, criticizes the attitude of the woman who wishes to remain her husband’s exclusive partner.
Another theme is the difficulty in finding a wife. There is a “series of tales whose theme is the father who imposes impossible ordeals on his daughter’s suitors.” One tale is The Marriage without Bride Price:
A man had a very beautiful daughter, as beautiful as a genie. She grew up and reached the age of being married off. Her father made his requirements known. Whoever wishes to marry her will pay no bride price. He will simply have to harvest a field of fonio, —the man’s field was a hundred kilometers long! He will also have to weave, —the man had yarn that formed a hill the size of our hill of Bagnon. He will furthermore have to gather the fruits of a baobab, —the baobab had been bearing fruits for a hundred years, and they had never fallen. It had so many that one could no longer see its branches! He will in addition have to drink a full cask of gruel. To end it all, he will have to strike one by one the pearls of his daughter’s belts. She wore them up to her armpits! Whoever would accomplish all this in one day, between sunrise and sunset, would have his daughter.
A bush spirit learns of these outrageous demands and turns itself into a handsome young man. It passes all of the tests and marries the girl. It then resumes its former appearance—a filthy body covered with ticks.
“You’re not the one I love!” says the daughter.
“If you repeat that, I will kill you. However pretty a woman may be, it’s still a man who will marry her. Your father had demanded work that no one can accomplish. He said there was no bride price. But it has always been by bride price that one gets a woman. He thought there was no other man than himself.”
(Meyer 2009, pp. 89-92)
Both types of folk tale reflect the male viewpoint. One type criticizes women who reject co-wives. The other criticizes fathers who want too much in exchange for their daughters. Yet these two criticisms are mutually inconsistent. Polygyny is what drives up the cost of brides on the marriage market. You can’t have one without the other.
High-polygyny society = Failed society?
In my last post, I noted that high-polygyny societies remain simple in large part because intense sexual competition keeps them from evolving into more complex entities. The surplus males stir up endless conflict, if only because war provides them with access to women, i.e., through rape and abduction. There can never be pacification and, therefore, the formation of larger, more advanced societies.
There is a second problem that blocks the evolution of high-polygyny societies. Although widespread polygyny is widely resented by men and women, this resentment cannot translate into efforts to limit the practice. Divided attitudes are part of the problem. On the one hand, younger men resent the wife shortage created by older polygynous men. On the other, they themselves hope to become polygynous as they too advance in years. Furthermore, power is generally vested in older men—the very ones most likely to have multiple wives.
Some women likewise gain from polygyny. This is particularly so with second wives who usurp resources built up by older co-wives. Other women accept polygyny as a lesser evil:
Undoubtedly one reason for the widespread acceptance of polygyny is the distaste for the alternative, which in this cultural context is most often not faithful monogamy but legal monogamy paralleled by a series of more or less open affairs. [… The reason is that] men spend less money on their wives than on their mistresses, and that the position of a wife is defined rather than fluid and uncontrollable.
It may seem remarkable that a mistress should impose a greater economic strain than an additional wife, but it should be remembered that Yoruba wives are traditionally largely self-supporting, their major economic claim upon their husbands being on behalf of their children, while a mistress in many cases only remains a mistress for as long as it is economically beneficial for her to do so.
Widespread polygyny is thus an institution that cannot easily reform itself. Yes, it does create profound social frictions that pit men against men and women against women. These frictions, however, cannot coalesce into a movement to oppose polygyny. The potential opposition is too fragmented and too marginal.
Urban Africa and the new mating environment
This is not to say that a high-polygyny society cannot evolve into a low-polygyny one. It can, if the material conditions of life change. We see this happening as Africans move off the land and into cities and towns, where women can less easily feed themselves and their children without assistance (1). Urban African men are less likely to be polygynous because it costs them more to provide for a second wife.
This in turn has shifted the pressure of sexual competition from men to women. It is increasingly the woman who must compete to find a mate. Whereas before she only had to work hard at tending her plot of land, she must now invest in her physical appearance, notably by lengthening her hair and bleaching her skin.
This new mating environment is described by Fokuo (2009) with respect to Ghana. Traditionally, Ghanaian women were married off through family mediation and bride price. This situation has changed since World War II and especially since the 1980s. They now largely find mates on their own, and do so in an increasingly competitive market that pressures them to be as sexually attractive as possible. One result has been the spread of skin bleaching:
By the late 1980’s and 1990’s, skin bleaching was no longer practiced by prostitutes. The popular culture of the 1980s praised lighter skin tones. This praise encouraged the spread of skin bleaching across gender lines and throughout all socio-economic classes of women. (Fokuo 2009)
Interviews with Ghanaian women suggest that this practice is driven by a competitive marriage market:
Sometimes if you really want to marry a particular man, you have to bleach.
(Interview 14, 2006)
Lighter-skinned women tend to attract more men by virtue of their lightness. So if they are at marrying age they get more men coming to court them earlier and quicker than darker-skinned women. (Interview 16, 2006)
Darker-skinned women look at themselves and realize that they need to bleach to be beautiful. Just so men can call them beautiful. (Interview 17, 2006)
This shift to ‘bodily commodification,’ together with the decline of matriarchy, is deplored in the literature. Yet the consequences are not entirely negative. Matriarchy meant that African women bore a very disproportionate share of labor in raising their families, especially physical labor. Today, there is a move toward a more equal balance of parental investment between African men and women. And bodily commodification is perhaps a necessary precondition for much of what we call ‘high culture,’ i.e., the pursuit of the aesthetic.
1. The future of polygyny in sub-Saharan Africa is closely linked to female autonomy. This came out in a study of polygynous families in Ibadan, Nigeria:
Perhaps the ultimate women’s issue is the extent to which women can lead autonomous existences without men. Trial interviews showed that it was possible to ask the question: “Apart from having children, do women need to have husbands?” without puzzling or antagonizing the respondents (only 2 percent of wives failed to respond to this question in the final survey). Remarkably, in a society where 99 percent of women marry by the age of 40, 47 percent of women answered that women do not need husbands. They explained that women are equal to men, that marriage has many disadvantages and that in many cases women are in a better position on their own. For those women who did consider husbands to play an important role apart from fatherhood, companionship (cited by 16 percent of all wives) was the most valuable function, followed by advice (11 percent) and the value of working together (10 percent). Only 7 percent of wives thought that women needed husbands for economic support, care or protection, the remainder cited sexual satisfaction (2 percent), prestige (2 percent) and nature (3 percent). Understandably, wives in polygynous unions were less likely to stress the companionship role of the husband, but even among women with two or more co-wives, 12 percent argued for this as compared with 21 percent of the monogamously married. Overall, what is most striking is just how dispassionately women view marriage. Childlessness is a terrible tragedy never to be assuaged, but every woman can find a husband of some sort, and hence they are not very highly valued. In discussing the need for a husband, nearly a fifth of the wives mentioned companionship, but no one mentioned love.
Fokuo, J.K. (2009). The lighter side of marriage: Skin bleaching in post-colonial Ghana, Research Review NS, 25(1), 47-66.
Meyer, G. (2009). Contes de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, Paris: Éditions Karthala.
Ware, H. (1979). Polygyny: Women’s Views in a Transitional Society, Nigeria 1975, Journal of Marriage and Family, 41, 185-195.