This article is about polyandrous marriage practices. For polyandrous animal mating, see polyandry in nature.
  Polygamy is legal
  Legal status unknown
  Polygamy is only legal for Muslims
  Polygamy is illegal, but practice is not criminalised
  Polygamy is illegal and practice criminalised
  • In Eritrea, India, Philippines, Singapore, and Sri Lanka polygamy is only legal for Muslims.
  • In Nigeria and South Africa, polygamous marriages under customary law and for Muslims are legally recognised.
  • In Mauritius, polygamous unions have no legal recognition. Muslim men may, however, "marry" up to four women, but they do not have the legal status of wives.

Polyandry (/ˈpɒliˌændri, ˌpɒliˈæn-/; from Greek: πολυ- poly-, "many" and ἀνήρ anēr, "man") involves marriage that includes more than two partners and can fall under the broader category of polyamory.[1][2] More specifically, it is a form of polygamy, where a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time. Polyandry is contrasted with polygyny, involving one male and two or more females. If a marriage involves a plural number of "husbands and wives" participants of each gender, then it can be called polyamory,[3] group or conjoint marriage.[2] In its broadest use, polyandry refers to sexual relations with multiple males within or without marriage.

Of the 1,231 societies listed in the 1980 Ethnographic Atlas, 186 were found to be monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry.[4] Polyandry is less rare than this figure which listed only those examples found in the Himalayan mountains (28 societies). More recent studies have found more than 50 other societies practicing polyandry.[5]

Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced among Tibetans in Nepal, parts of China and part of northern India, in which two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the wife having equal "sexual access" to them.[6] It is associated with partible paternity, the cultural belief that a child can have more than one father.[5]

Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources. It is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival.[6][7] It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among peasant families but also among the elite families.[8] For example, polyandry in the Himalayan mountains is related to the scarcity of land. The marriage of all brothers in a family to the same wife allows family land to remain intact and undivided. If every brother married separately and had children, family land would be split into unsustainable small plots. In contrast, very poor persons not owning land were less likely to practice polyandry in Buddhist Ladakh and Zanskar.[6] In Europe, the splitting up of land was prevented through the social practice of impartible inheritance. For example, disinheriting most siblings where many of whom then became celibate monks and priests.[9]

Polyandrous mating systems are also a common phenomenon in the animal kingdom.



Main article: Polyandry in India

In the Indian Himalayas, polyandry may be combined with polygyny to produce a system termed "polygynandry". The system results in less land fragmentation, a diversification of domestic economic activities, and lower population growth.[10]

Fraternal polyandry

Main article: Polyandry in Tibet

Fraternal polyandry (from the Latin frater—brother), also called adelphic polyandry, is a form of polyandry in which a woman is married to two or more men who are one another's brothers. Fraternal polyandry was (and sometimes still is) found in certain areas of Tibet, Nepal, and Northern India,[11] where polyandry was accepted as a social practice.[6][12] The Toda people of southern India practice fraternal polyandry, but monogamy has become prevalent recently.[13] In contemporary Hindu society, polyandrous marriages in agrarian societies in the Malwa region of Punjab seem to occur to avoid division of farming land.[14]

Fraternal polyandry achieves a similar goal to that of primogeniture in 19th-century England. Primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and seek their own employment. Primogeniture maintained family estates intact over generations by permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this, but does so by keeping all the brothers together with just one wife so that there is only one set of heirs per generation.[15] This strategy appears less successful the larger the fraternal sibling group.[16]

Some forms of polyandry appear to be associated with a perceived need to retain aristocratic titles or agricultural lands within kin groups, and/or because of the frequent absence, for long periods, of a man from the household. In Tibet the practice was particularly popular among the priestly Sakya class.

An extreme gender imbalance has been suggested as a justification for polyandry. For example, the selective abortion of female fetuses in India has led to a significant margin in sex ratio and, it has been suggested, results in related men "sharing" a wife.[17]

The female equivalent of fraternal polyandry is sororate marriage.

Partible paternity

Anthropologist Stephen Beckerman points out that at least 20 tribal societies accept that a child could, and ideally should, have more than one father, referring to it as "partible paternity."[18] This often results in the shared nurture of a child by multiple fathers in a form of polyandric relation to the mother, although this is not always the case.[19] One of the most well known examples is that of Trobriand "virgin birth." The matrilineal Trobriand Islanders recognize the importance of sex in reproduction but do not believe the male makes a contribution to the constitution of the child, who therefore remains attached to their mother's lineage alone. The mother's non-resident husbands are not recognized as fathers, although the mother's co-resident brothers are, since they are part of the mother's lineage.

Known cases

Polyandry in Tibet was a common practice and continues to a lesser extent today. In Tibet, polyandry has been outlawed since the Chinese takeover of the area, so it is difficult to measure the incidence of polyandry in what may have been the world's most polyandrous society.[20] Polyandry in India still exists among minorities, and also in Bhutan, and the northern parts of Nepal. Polyandry has been practised in several parts of India, such as Rajasthan, Ladakh and Zanskar, in the Jaunsar-Bawar region in Uttarakhand, among the Toda of South India.[6][20]

It also occurs or has occurred in Nigeria, the Nymba,[20] and some pre-contact Polynesian societies,[21] though probably only among higher caste women.[22] It is also encountered in some regions of Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, among the Mosuo people in China, and in some sub-Saharan African such as the Maasai people in Kenya and northern Tanzania[23] and American indigenous communities. The Guanches, the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, practiced polyandry until their disappearance.[24] The Zo'e tribe in the state of Pará on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil, also practice polyandry.[25]




Sepulcral inscription for Allia Potestas, Museo Epigrafico, Terme di Diocleziano, Rome

North America


South America

Religious attitudes

According to inscriptions describing the reforms of the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC), the former custom of polyandry in his country was abolished, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned with rocks upon which her crime is written.[55]


Draupadi with her five husbands - the Pandavas. The central figure is Yudhishthira; the two to his left are Bhima and Arjuna . Nakula and Sahadeva, the twins, are to his right. Their wife, at far right, is Draupadi. Deogarh, Dasavatar temple.

Polyandrous relations are disapproved of in most expressions of Hinduism.[56] There is at least one reference to polyandry in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi married the five Pandava brothers, as this is what she chose in a previous life. This ancient text remains largely neutral to the concept of polyandry, accepting this as her way of life.[57] However, in the same epic, when questioned by Kunti to give an example of polyandry, Yudhishthira cites Gautam-clan Jatila (married to seven Saptarishis) and Hiranyaksha's sister Pracheti (married to ten brothers), thereby implying a more open attitude toward polyandry in Vedic society.[58]


The Hebrew Bible contains no examples of women married to more than one man,[59][60] but its description of adultery clearly implies that polyandry is unacceptable[61][62] and the practice is unknown in Jewish tradition.[63][64] In addition, the children from other than the first husband are considered illegitimate, unless he has already divorced her or died (i.e., a mamzer),[65] being a product of an adulterous relationship.


Current-day mainstream Christianity strongly advocates monogamous marriage, and the New Testament explicitly forbids polyandry. (Romans 7:2-3).

Latter-Day Saints

Prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young have a historical record of polygynous marriages and seems to be a controversial topic when discussed as to being why they entered into those types of marriages.[66]


Islam prohibits polyandry for free women, but the Quran states that men are allowed to marry women who are already married, if they own them.[67] Nikah Ijtimah was a pagan tradition of polyandry in older Arab which was condemned and eradicated by Islam.[68]

Polyandry in Biology

Main article: Polyandry in nature

Polyandrous behavior is quite widespread in the animal kingdom. It is prominent in many species of insects and fish (for example pipefish; see Polyandry in fish). It is also found in other animals such as birds (for example dunnocks), whales, and in some mammals such as house mouse.

Among the whales, polyandrous behavior has been noted among the Bowhead,[69] Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena),[70] and humpback whales.[71]

Among the relevant insect species are the honeybees, the red flour beetle, the species of spider Stegodyphus lineatus, the crickets Gryllus bimaculatus, and Drosophila pseudoobscura.

Polyandry also occurs in some primates such as marmosets, and in the marsupial genus' Antechinus.

See also


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  2. 1 2 Zeitzen, Miriam Koktvedgaard (2008). Polygamy: a cross-cultural analysis. Berg. p. 3. ISBN 1-84520-220-1.
  3. McCullough, Derek; Hall, David S. (27 February 2003). "Polyamory - What it is and what it isn't.". Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. 6.
  4. Ethnographic Atlas Codebook derived from George P. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas recording the marital composition of 1,231 societies from 1960 to 1980.
  5. 1 2 Starkweather, Katherine; Hames, Raymond (2012). A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry. 23 (2): 149–150. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Gielen, U. P. (1993). Gender Roles in traditional Tibetan cultures. In L. L. Adler (Ed.), International handbook on gender roles (pp. 413-437). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  7. (Linda Stone, Kinship and Gender, 2006, Westview, 3rd ed., ch. 6) The Center for Research on Tibet Papers on Tibetan Marriage and Polyandry (accessed October 1, 2006).
  8. Goldstein, "Pahari and Tibetan Polyandry Revisited" in Ethnology 17(3): 325–327 (1978) (The Center for Research on Tibet; accessed October 1, 2007).
  9. Levine, Nancy (1998). The Dynamics of polyandry: kinship, domesticity, and population on the Tibetan border. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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  13. Sidner, Sara. "Brothers Share Wife to Secure Family Land". CNN.
  14. Draupadis bloom in rural Punjab Times of India, Jul 16, 2005.
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  17. Arsenault, Chris (24 October 2011). "Millions of aborted girls imbalance India". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 29 October 2011. While prospects for conflict are unclear, other problems including human trafficking, prostitution and polyandry—men (usually relatives) sharing a wife—are certain to get worse.
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  67. Slave—girls are sexual property for their male owners.4:24 “And forbidden to you are wedded wives of other people except those who have fallen in your hands ” (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 319).
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  70. Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) wildwhales.org
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Further reading

Look up polyandry in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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