For Better or Worse, 'Sister-Swapping' Persists

Monday, March 22, 2010

Berdel--also known as sister swapping and parallel weddings--is dwindling but still practiced. One woman says the tribal custom, which is controlled by a male elder, may have led to her wedding, but it's not what she wants for her daughters.

A Kurdish wedding in Diyarbakir, Turkey.DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--Did they meet before marriage?

She said never but her husband said once.

"But we are happy," said the husband, Husein Bozan, 44. "If we were not happy how could we have eight children?"

The couple lives here in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.

While he sat in the perfectly square living room, carpeted from wall-to-wall, speaking with a reporter in front of a TV broadcast, his wife, Sultan, 40, and four daughters were quietly huddled in a corner.

Bozan's father, brother and four sons also sat in front of the medium-sized TV, which was showing guerillas of PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) on the mountains, singing in praise of the heroism of martyrs.

Bozan said his love is unconditional but the marriage is conditional.

That's because of the special rules of their wedding, conducted according to the ancient tradition of berdel, also known as parallel brides or sister swapping, in which the daughters of two families marry the sons of the other in the same ceremony.

On a dusty summer day, 23 years ago, Bozan wed Sultan and Sultan's brother married Bozan's sister.

The practice is intended to solidify inter-family bonds, but also allow for a possible parting of ways.

By custom, if one marriage breaks, so must the other.

It is not clear how many marriages have been sealed through berdel. But scholars say one thing is clear--berdel marriage is not about two individuals, it is about two families, about tribes and kinship. It firmly positions the head of the family, the father or the grandfather, as the decision maker. He cuts the deals. He can annul marriages. No one asks the women.

Berdel is far less common than 20 years ago, eroded by educational campaigns against the practice and the weakening of tribal customs as urban lifestyles confer more financial independence to young people.

Still Somewhat Practiced

But it is still somewhat practiced in the east and southeast Anatolian regions of Turkey among Kurdish, Turkic and Arabic populations.

No statistics are kept about berdel, but Mehmet, Bozan's younger brother said the practice is waning.

"Earlier, if a village had 30 houses, at least 15 of them would have married through berdel, now only five," he said. Though Mehmet did not marry according to berdel, his marriage was fixed by his father.

Two months ago, Sultan's youngest sister and a male cousin were married through berdel to another family, she said.

The men in Sultan's family assumed responsibility for answering most of this reporter's questions, but when she was pushed for an answer about her daughters, she sounded resolved.

"No berdel for my daughters," she said in a voice too soft for her husband to hear. "There were problems in my marriage."

Bozan said berdel, which in Kurdish language means "in place of the one," was good for his generation. His father arranged the marriage deal and he agreed with no qualms. In his case it was not a choice, it was mandatory. "I am not sure if today's children with all these education, urban life and TV will agree," he said.

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