Sunday, August 21, 2016

Relationships: Marriage and Gender Roles of the Dahomey Kingdom Tribes

As I mentioned in my post about the Nayar of India:
I was digging through some old papers and found a bit of research I’d done ages ago on the diversity of cultural understanding of marriage in the past and present. It made me curious to Google some of these societies and just compare it to what I’d written.
I think it's important to share things like this because European colonization of the globe lead to a lot of social/cultural homogenization that left modern folks confused about which aspects of human behavior are socially derived, and which biologically derived. This difference often doesn't matter, but when someone makes a presumption that life-time sexual exclusivity with a single monogamous partner is the normal/natural state of human beings--intending that this means we've evolved as monogamous beings--they're misunderstanding the history of how this was often forcibly spread about the globe, and the amazing variety of relationship and family types that thrived quite well in many other areas.
Particularly annoying is when people claim that monogamy in the nuclear family Western Civ sense is somehow better for bringing up children. In fact, there are many perfectly great working models for child rearing that have been utilized and continue to be utilized, around the world today. Our model is just one, and not even necessarily the most optimal.
It was actually just a small bit of my paper that led me to Google the information that follows. Here was all I had in my own research:
It is possible to find societies which recognize more than these three types of marriage [referring to prior discussion of man-woman monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry]. Among the Dahomey in Benin, West Africa, 13 types of marriage are recognized. The different unions are dependent upon the different economic relationships existing between the people involved.

Literally, that was it. I Googled "Dahomey" and here is what I came up with I felt was worth sharing:
Dahomey African kingdom (located in the area of the present-day country of Benin) that existed from about 1600 until 1894, when the last king, Behanzin, was defeated by the French, and the country was annexed into the French colonial empire.
Woman Marriage
There is a curious and ancient custom found among some of the Yoruba, Yagba, Akoko, Nupe, and Gana-Gana communities—that of a woman going through a regular form of matrimony with other women… a more striking example of this type of marriage is where a wealthy woman, who may or may not be normally married to a man, contracts a marriage with a young girl to whom she subsequently allows a cicisbeo to have access, the resultant children belonging to the female "husband". This is a common practice among the Yoruba, Nupe, Akoko, and Gana-Gana, and the female "husband" will even pay men to have connection with her young "wife". In some cases she exacts gifts of farm-service from cicisbei. All the ceremonial of marriage is observed in these marriages of women to women, and a bride-price is even paid to the young girl’s father. The usual rules of divorce apply. The legal "husband" can divorce her "wife" and recover her dowry, and if the young girl runs off with a man she can claim the resultant children as her own. The marriage of women to women is not regarded with disfavor, and the chiefs will even consent to their daughters being married in this way.
Citation: C.K. Meek, The Northern Tribes of Nigeria, vol. i, pp. 209-10.

As a side note, another interesting tradition in the Dahomey kingdom was that of the female warriors.
For the better part of 200 years, thousands of female soldiers fought and died to expand the borders of their West African kingdom. Even their conquerors, the French, acknowledged their "prodigious bravery."

Another interesting aside is that the Smithsonian article goes on to offer scholarly speculation about how the women warriors came to be. One idea is that they derived from women elephant hunters in the region, known as the “gbeto.”

I hope that information such as this is useful in helping people to questioning their potential ethnocentricy, so that they can see many of the issues we consider controversial in our own culture—women it the military, same-sex marriage, marriage makeup and child custody rights and parental obligations—are handled very differently in other areas of the world where what we think of as new, innovative, progressive or even, for some people, not normal (or even potentially harmful) for human beings, is embraced in other cultures as mundane and ordinary, or handled in vastly different ways than ours. Western Civ is not the only model of social structure and civilization. There are many other models that work and have worked for who knows how long into the past—about which many people in our very “educated” society are shamefully ignorant.

There is nothing wrong with opening our minds and thinking outside the box with regard to human social connections, love, families, relationships, intimacy, and what is “normal” or “natural” for human beings. Far too many  people have opinions on these issues supported by extremely few data points. And fear of things that are not harmful, but merely different, can create situations where people are often unnecessarily oppressed or unjustifiably stigmatized.

I’d like to play a small part if helping people achieve happiness in their relationships. And part of that includes educating folks so that they aren’t unnecessarily concerned about things that really aren’t anything to be worried about.

Be happy. Be yourself. Don't let fear hold you back from living and allowing others to live.


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