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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.

Subhead: 
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.

The origins of this system are mysterious.

Something called watta-satta (give and take or throwing a stone and receiving something back), which involves the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister from two families, accounts for a third of all marriages in rural Pakistan; it is even more common in parts of Sindh and the country's southern province of Punjab, according to a 2007 World Bank report.

In berdel both marriages are annulled if one couple splits, but watta-satta enforces reciprocal threat. So if a husband mistreats his wife then his brother-in-law can retaliate and treat his sister in the same way.

Marriage Confirmed Authority

Stephanie Coontz, author of the 2006 book "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy and How Love Conquered Marriage," teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

"For thousands of years in Christian, Muslim and all other sorts of societies, marriage was in part about confirming the authority of elders over children in general and men over women in particular," said Coontz in an e-mail interview.

Sebnem Eras, a Turkish journalist, photographer and author of the book "Berdel," published in January, describes it as a social control mechanism.

She said there are practical explanations for why it originated and thrived. In Turkey, families used berdel to avoid paying bride price, which the groom pays the father of the bride and can range from $2,000 to $7,000. So families offered their daughters in exchange. (While berdel is used to negate the bride price, watta-satta is primarily used to avoid paying dowry by the bride's family.)

But that was less important than its use in forging strategic alliances. "Berdel is used to fortify kinship ties and ensure the continuity of tribal organizations," Eras said. Most berdel marriages are organized within clans so it solidifies tribal bonds and protects male inheritances from slipping out of clans.

Eras said it's popular now to view berdel an oppressive system that victimizes women. She noted that men are also victimized since neither side of a match has any choice.

She said, however, it was wrong to assume berdel marriages aren't happy. "I found couples who developed a balanced formula to be happy, love and support each other," she said.

There are also ways to preserve one marriage when another ends. Some families can choose to pay the bride price and keep the woman.

"Paying bride price is not highly regarded," Eras said. "It is at this point most conflicts and clashes between tribes start."

Few Divorces Settled in Court

Few divorce cases are settled in the courts; instead the division of property is discussed by the male head of the families and in some cases by the tribal leaders.

The berdel system also has rules for when one of the wives in a parallel marriage dies. In this situation, the widower may marry another woman from his wife's family, said Serpil Altuntek, an anthropologist at Hacettepe University in Ankara. If no sister is available and the man chooses to marry a woman from another family, then the family of his deceased wife has to pay half of the bride price.

It is also difficult to break off a berdel marriage, since the system tends to brush aside marital problems for the "sake of two families," Altuntek said.

In some cases women who are coerced to marry through berdel commit suicide, Altuntek said. "If she decides to escape or choose another man, this can be seen as loss of honor and she might be either killed or forced to commit suicide," she said.

Rozan Kahraman, a sociologist who works at the Education of Women and Psychological Information Center in Diyarbakir, is happy that the practice is waning.

"We consider it a form of violence against women. Now we have one less evil to fight," Kahraman said. "In some cases berdel marriages are fixed at birth. Also, if a man kidnaps a woman then his family has to offer a sister to compensate."

Bijoyeta Das is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her work is available at www.bijoyetadas.com.