Women in Bhutan - History - Traditional Marriage and Family Life

Traditional Marriage and Family Life

The traditional practice, arranged marriages based on family and ethnic ties, had been replaced in the late twentieth century with marriages based on mutual affection. Marriages were usually arranged by the partners in contemporary Bhutan, and the minimum age was sixteen for women and twenty-one for men. The institution of child marriage, once relatively widespread, largely declined as Bhutan modernized, and there were only remnants of the practice in the late twentieth century. Interethnic marriages, once forbidden, were encouraged in the late 1980s by an incentive of a Nu10,000 government stipend to willing couples. The stipend was discontinued in 1991, however. Marriages of Bhutanese citizens to foreigners, however, have been discouraged. Bhutanese with foreign spouses were not allowed to obtain civil service positions and could have their government scholarships cancelled and be required to repay portions already received. Foreign spouses were not entitled to citizenship by right but had to apply for naturalization.

Polyandry was abolished and polygamy was restricted in the mid-twentieth century. Through the 1990s, however, the law still allowed a man as many as three wives, providing he had the first wife's permission. The first wife also had the power to sue for divorce and alimony if she did not agree. In the 1980s, divorce was common, and newer laws provided better benefits to women seeking alimony.

Family life, both traditionally and through the end of the 20th century, was likely to provide for a fair amount of self-sufficiency. Families, for example, often made their own clothing, bedding, floor and seat covers, tablecloths, and decorative items for daily and religious use. Wool was the primary material, but domestic silk and imported cotton were also used in weaving colorful cloth, often featuring elaborate geometric, floral, and animal designs. Although weaving was normally done by women of all ages using family-owned looms, monks sometimes did embroidery and appliqué work. In the twentieth century, weaving was possibly as predominant a feature of daily life as it was at the time of Bhutan's unification in the seventeenth century.

Landholdings varied depending on the wealth and size of individual families, but most families had as much land as they could farm using traditional techniques. A key element of family life was the availability of labor. Thus, the choice of the home of newlyweds was determined by which parental unit had the greatest need of supplemental labor. If both families had a sufficient supply of labor, then a bride and groom might elect to set up their own home.<

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