Best of Friends and Worst of Enemies: Competition and Collaboration in Polygyny (1)

By Madhavan, Sangeetha | Ethnology, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Best of Friends and Worst of Enemies: Competition and Collaboration in Polygyny (1)


Madhavan, Sangeetha, Ethnology


Much of the scholarship on polygyny portrays it as harmful to women, noting in particular that it pits co-wives against each other. Some feminists have used this characterization to associate polygyny with the subjugation of women. However, other work has illustrated the collaborative nature of polygynous relationships. Despite efforts to generalize about polygyny (as either competitive or collaborative), it has become increasingly clear that co-wife relationships and women's experiences with polygyny can only be understood within particular sociocultural and personal contexts. This essay describes co-wife relationships in two ethnic groups in Mali, West Africa, to illustrate the varying nature of polygynous unions and demonstrate that co-wives negotiate their relative statuses within the domestic group through both competitive and collaborative strategies. The research underscores the importance of cultural and socioeconomic contexts in determining the relative value of collaboration and competition in polygynous households. (Polygyny, competition, collaboration, feminism, Mali)

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Statements of two women in polygynous unions illustrate polar differences in attitudes about it. For Aissata (age 44), a polygynous union can be humiliating.

If there is another woman, it is the first wife that suffers; now I am here only because of the children not because of love for my husband; polygyny shows that your husband does not like you and the whole village thinks that you are not a real woman.

But for Setou (age 33), it is comforting.

I get along very well with Koro [her co-wife]; I treat her like an older sister; I can talk to her about anything, even pregnancy; if I have problems with my pregnancy, I tell Koro first, who then informs our husband.

The case of Aissata lends support to the common notion that polygyny is essentially competitive because it pits women against each other (Fainzang and Journet 1988; Meekers and Franklin 1995; Ware 1981). However, Setou's situation indicates how polygyny can foster collaboration among women (cf. Abu-Lughod 1993; Steady 1987). Despite efforts to generalize about polygyny (as either competitive or collaborative), it has become increasingly clear that co-wife relationships and women's experiences with polygyny can only be understood within particular sociocultural and personal contexts. Even among African women who live in patrilineal, patrilocal societies, attitudes toward polygyny range from intense competition to collaboration. Using qualitative data from two ethnic groups in the West African country of Mali, this study illustrates: 1) how co-wife relationships are conditioned by social, cultural, and personal contexts; and 2) how co-wives negotiate their relative statuses within the domestic group through both competitive and collaborative strategies. The relative force of competition or collaboration among co-wives depends on factors such as cultural attitudes about self-assertion versus consensus, sexual jealousy, reproductive competition, individual personalities, and life circumstances.

COMPETITION AND COLLABORATION

The study of female competition and collaboration has gone through several distinct phases in Western feminism. Before the rise of the women's movement, people commonly perceived women as incapable of relating to each other except through competition (Pogrebin 1987). This view was later challenged by feminist scholars who saw co-operation and friendship among women as crucial factors in empowering them against male hegemony (Smith-Rosenberg 1975). Another line of thinking on competition, however, concludes that there is a need and a place for competition in the feminist ethos and that it need not threaten women's solidarity (Lugones and Spelman 1987). The assumption that all women avoid conflict and are nurturing and egalitarian (Bardwick 1971) is problematic not only across but also within cultures. …

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