Monogamy as a Western Invention?

When the Western powers colonized Asia, naturally they enforced their own views on sex, gender, and relationships onto the subjugated civilizations. This is from a chapter on ‘Gender’ taken from the East-West dichotomy.


Monogamy – It’s a White Man’s Thing

Almost alone among barbarians they [the Germanic people] are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance. (Tacitus, AD 92)

In the preceding chapters I talked about the common metaphor of culture as a living being (e.g. Oswald Spengler, 1922; Arnold Toynbee, 1958 etc.). In this chapter I go further by exploring the gender, sexual orientation, and maturity of that culture.

Among the many things that impressed Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, and what captured his readers’ imagination throughout the centuries, is the absolute correct observation that a Mongol man, like the Mussulman, could take as many wives as he wanted: “When a husband leaves his wife to go on a journey for more than twenty days, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband, in this she is fully entitled to do by local custom. And the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way” (Polo, 2007).

Now, I believe Marco Polo often confused the Mussulmen with the Mongols, and the Mongols with the common Chinamen (of whom there were countless clans), as there were many hundreds of cultures existing side by side in thirteenth century Cathay (China). The Mongols took over Cathay and established the Yuan dynasty (1264-1368) under Kublai Khan, who ruled from his court in Beijing, but they did not introduce polygamy in China. Far from it: Although polygamy was accepted in many societies around the globe, nowhere was it as common as in Asiatic societies. However, by far more popular was the phenomenon of concubinage, that is, the maintenance of mistresses.

Concubinage does not mean having multiple wives, like in traditional polygamy, and it is certainly not a form of prostitution either. I will discuss this shortly. Having multiple wives, as long as a man could afford such a costly status symbol, was common in Hindu societies, too (the mythical Krishna had 16,108 wives!), but since monogamy was introduced in the nineteenth century by the British Imperialists, having multiple wives became illegal in many parts of India. Yet in the Muslim world, it is often legal. Until the Marriage Act of 1953, the ideal household in China consisted of “one man, many wives, and as many children as possible” (Gu, 1922; Xia et al., 2003). In Japan, polygamy was declared illegal only after the country was defeated in World War II and occupied by the U.S. army. But I will stop here and turn to more important facts…

Next post: Western sexual dominance versus Asian sexual submission

Image credit: Jonathan Kos-Read/Flickr.com

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
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  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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