Are five husbands better than one? Kimber McKay at TEDxUMontana


Translator: Barış Bozlaker
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo I came to talk to you tonight about my research
in the Nepalese Himalayas, and what it’s taught me about
definitions of marriage. I’m a cultural anthropologist and I’ve studied marriage
and family systems now, cross-culturally, for 20 years. A lot of us in America have
a template in mind when we think about marriage
and family. We have a set of ideas
regarding what’s normal, even ideal,
with respect to marriage and family. And it doesn’t occur to a lot of us
to wonder where that template came from. I came to the topic
from the perspective of my own family. My parents divorced when I was young, they remarried,
had more biological children, and adopted yet others
from another country. So, my ideas about family were
fairly flexible from a pretty early age. By contrast, my ideas about marriage
were much more rigid. They were informed by what I saw
around me growing up in rural New Hampshire
in the 1970s and 1980s. And like many Americans,
I internalized the idea that a good and proper marriage involved a relationship between
one man and one woman. I never thought to question that template,
or where it came from, or how other people in other societies might organize their ideas,
or their template. So, when I became a student of
cultural anthropology, and decided to focus on marriage
and family, I started to question that more seriously. In order to complete my studies, I had to choose a society where
I would go live, learn the language, and spend over a year living with people and coming to know their way
of doing things. So, fast-forward to 1995, and I found myself walking
along with 11 quarters up this valley, carrying the ridiculous and now
embarrassing amount of stuff that I imagined I was going to need
to make it through a year of living there. So this is in Humla district,
in Nepal’s Northwestern corner, right off on the border with Tibet in a place that lacked roads. The nearest road from the Nepal side
was a three-week walk away at my pace. And, the villages lacked electricity, toilets, running water, telephones,
and modern health care. To get there, I flew in on this airplane, landed on a gravel runway,
and started walking. To get to my field site,
I had to walk between 8 and 16 hours, and there were lots of villages
to choose from. Eventually I chose this one.
It’s a little village called Karami, with 300 residents,
and it had a hot spring; enough said! (Laughter) So I stayed there for a year, talking with the people who lived there, and coming to understand
their way of living, and their thoughts about family
and marriage. The reason I was attracted
to this place is because they have a very unusual
marriage system where, typically, people start out their marital career
marrying polyandrously, which means that women
have multiple husbands. But, in fact, this system
has a lot of flexibility, so many people are monogamous. Some people are polygynous,
which means they have multiple wives, and there’s a tremendous amount
of flexibility and open-mindedness with respect to how
to define marriage in that society. So, the day I arrived,
I met my friend Carchun Lama, who is somebody I was to become
very close with. Carchun was the same age as me. And she had five husbands
at that time and three children. I, by contrast, had no husband
and no children, and this was a subject
of grave concern for my friends, who were to spend many hours
advising me about how to tackle the obstacles
they forsaw in my future; finding a husband, withstanding the rigors of pregnancy,
labor, and delivery at the advanced age of 26.
(Laughter) But, their concern for me
was vastly overshadowed by their concern for my boyfriend, who lived with me for a little while, and the serious error in judgment
he seemed to be making, having chosen a woman so lazy,
and so evidently incompetent, who’s content to spend her days asking inane questions about
marriage and family, sitting around writing about them
in her notebook. So I had a lot of adventures
in this place, and many experiences that were
mind-expanding. But, of all of those experiences, both for me as a cultural anthropologist,
and for me as a human being, the most mind-expanding of all was coming to understand
the flexibility in their system of defining marriage and family, and coming to understand
what it was like to live in a place with no single way of arranging
relations between spouses, or a single set of ideas about
a good and proper way of marrying or providing for your family
and household. Now anthropologists have been interested
in this topic for hundreds of years. There aren’t a lot of things
that are cultural universals; things that all societies do. But one of the things
that nearly all societies on Earth do is put into place a system of practices
regulating relationships between spouses, between spouses and in-laws,
and between spouses and children. And this is what we refer to
when we’re talking about marriage. Beyond that, we don’t get
very much more precise. And the reason for that is because the incredible variability that we see
across societies, with respect to marriage. So, many people will know that
it’s very common for monogamy to occur. Beyond monogamy, though, even more societies either permit
or encourage polygamy in one of two forms. Polygyny, where there are multiple wives, or polyandry, much less common,
where there are multiple husbands. Beyond those kinds of marriage,
we see many societies, both historically and contemporarily, in all different sorts of societies,
permitting same-sex marriage. The levirate, where,
if a woman’s husband dies, she can expect to be remarried
to his brother, and societies with the sororate,
where, if a man’s wife dies, he can expect to be remarried to
any available sister that she might have. We even see societies where something
called ghost-marriage is practiced. And that’s where,
if a family has a child who dies before reaching the age
of marriage and reproduction, they can marry his spirit
to another community member, and any children she might have
would be attributed to the spirit-spouse, thereby continuing the lineage
through her. So, one thing that anthropologists
of marriage come to understand is that there are lots and lots
of different forms of marriage that work across societies. Moreover, they permit people to thrive
and even to prosper. They don’t have to fit
any particular template. Now, among these types, fraternal
polyandry is one of the least common. In Humla, how it works is a woman
marries a man and his brothers. So, her co-husbands
are each other’s brothers. And, in some families,
this is very advantageous, because, in Tibet, on the plateau, where this kind of polyandry
used to be common, and in the high Himalayan valleys
of the Nepalese, of Nepal and India, arable land is at a premium. So maintaining the estate of land, where
food can be grown by these farmers, intact from one generation to the next, when the brothers marry all together
and share a wife, can be very advantageous, and so people were very aware of that,
talked about that with me. In this family, there were three brothers
and co-husbands, and one wife. And I was very close to this family
and observed how they sort of arranged
their life and their household, given their polyandrous status. What happened in this family
was typical for polyandrous villagers. One husband might be absent
for long periods of time, engaging in pedestrian trade. Another husband might be up
at the yak pastures, the high-elevation yak pastures, for a good part of the year. And the third husband would be home
sort of looking after the agriculture. So what that meant was
for their shared wife, it was rare for her to have all
of her husbands home at the same time, competing for her attentions. And so, one of the things that’s
very special about this group of people is that they’re very candid and respectful of the reality that not all women
are suited to this task. It’s typical for people to begin, at least,
their marriages polyandrously. Some people stay polyandrous
for the duration of their adult lives. But other people choose
other marriage forms. This was my research assistant,
Manga Lama, and he is a person who had brothers, so technically, he could have
started out his marital career marrying polyandrously,
and sharing one wife with his brothers. But, because of their personalities
and desires for marriage, they decided that they wanted
to separately marry their own wife, and they never entered
into a polyandrous union. Eventually, the first family I showed you,
after nearly 20 years, transitioned out of polyandry,
and into separate monogamous households. Now, that decision and Manga’s decision
to never engage in polyandry, were not met with any particular
concern by the community. And no assignment of negativity,
or value judgment, or guilt and shame accompanied those decisions. And that’s typical of this group of people. They’re very candid about the fact
that different personalities are suited to different
marital arrangements. Moreover, they understand that what you may be suited to
as a young adult, may be different from
what you’re suited to as you age. And given the long, relatively long
in this day and age, life that Humalese enjoy,
their needs can change. This is my adoptive younger brother
Angduk Lama, making friends with
his first trout, here in Missoula. And he spent some time here with me. Currently, he’s in Humla. Last week we were chatting
and emailed him, wouldn’t it be fun to make a video
of our friend Andu Lama, who’s a polyandrous woman,
two husbands, and see what she has to share with you
about her thoughts regarding polyandry. So, here is Anda talking
in her own words. (Video) Interviewer:
What do you think about polyandry? Are there any advantages? Woman: If the husbands
agree with each other, then it’s good. One takes care of the local work,
the other does the outside work. We don’t have much land or property
to devide. We only have three small patches of land. So we totally depend on my husbands’
skills and labor for living. This year our barley production
was very small. Interviewer:
Have you ever had jelousy issues? How did you deal with it? Woman: I’ve never had that issue.
Sometimes, if they’re drunk, they argue. Other than that, they are fine. Kimber: I love that one of her husbands
chimes in at the end: ‘It all works great,
unless somebody’s drunk.’ (Laughter) Sounds like a lot of families I know. (Laughter) So, there’ve been lots of changes
over the last couple of decades, being in and out of the villages. I’m very proud to work with
an organization called the ISIS foundation that brings hygiene, sanitation, health
and education projects to people there. And that allows me to wear
my other hat in life, and to pursue my other passion,
which is pit latrines. Because, I firmly believe
that every Humlee household should have a toilet that they love. Other forces of change are at work. Recently, in fact, over the last decade,
Nepal went through a civil war. And the insurgents campaigned,
in part, on asking Nepali people to
really scrutinize their traditional culture. In Humla, they went after polyandry
in particular. Despite these forces of change,
polyandry has continued. We just resurveyed the villages, and fully 30% of households
still have polyandrous marriages. And of the monogamous marriages
of today, more than 70% of them in Karnali
used to be polyandrous. So both polyandry and the flexibility
of the system are persisting. I don’t want to portray Humla as some kind of conflictless Shangri-La,
’cause it’s not. They’ve conflicts over lots of topics. But one topic that
they don’t have conflict over is the definition of marriage. And I believe that
that has everything to do with the flexibility inherent
in the system, and their compassionate,
empathetic and wise recognition that characterologically,
and in terms of personality, different people are suited
to different marital arrangements. Moreover, what they’re suited to can change as time passes,
and needs change. So I’m not advocating that we all
start marrying polyandrously. I don’t know how you feel
about your brothers or how you feel about
your husband’s brothers, but I’m guessing fraternal polyandry
might not be your first choice. What I am advocating for, however,
is that we look closely at how… how narrowly we’ve defined
marriage in our culture, and we ask ourselves
where that template came from. As for me, given the opportunity, and based on 20 years,
thinking this over, and observing this incredibly
remarkable, flexible society, I would advocate
for a more flexible system. One that avoids guilt and shame, and which recognizes, respects,
and, indeed, uplifts, more than one good and proper
marriage configuration. So, in conclusion,
I’d like to turn the question that I asked myself as a young adult
over to you: If you had the opportunity
to redefine the template, what would it look like, and why? In Tibetan: Thuk-je-che,
thank you. (Applause)