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.

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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

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