Feb 8, 2018
A mother and daughter having sex with the same man may sound hard to believe, but it’s a necessity for women in one Bangladeshi tribe. Not that they’re thrilled about it.
As a child in rural Bangladesh, Orola Dalbot, 30, liked growing up around her mother’s second husband, Noten. Her father had died when she was small, and her mother had remarried. Noten was handsome, with a broad smile. “I thought my mother was lucky,” Orola says. “I hoped I’d find a husband like him.” When she hit puberty, however, Orola learned the truth she least expected: She was already Noten’s wife. Her wedding had occurred when she was 3 years old, in a joint ceremony with her mother. Following tradition in the matrilineal Mandi tribe, mother and daughter had married the same man.
“I wanted to run away when I found out,” says Orola, sitting in the sunbaked courtyard of her family home in north-central Bangladesh. “I was shaking with disbelief.” Orola’s mother, Mittamoni, now 51, told her she must accept it. Among the Mandi, a remote hill tribe in Bangladesh and India, widows who wish to remarry must choose a man from the same clan as their dead husband. The only single males, however, are often much younger. So the custom evolved that a widow would offer one of her daughters as a second bride to take over her duties—including sex—when the daughter came of age.
“My mother was only 25 when my father died. She wasn’t ready to be single,” says Orola, swathed in a vibrant blue pashmina. The tribe offered Noten, then 17, as Mittamoni’s new husband, on the condition that he marry Orola, too. “I was too small to remember the wedding—I had no idea it had taken place,” Orola says. Devastated to discover that she was expected to share her own mother’s husband, she says, “My mother already had two children with him. I wanted a husband of my own.”
The situation was doubly unjust in Orola’s eyes because ethnic Mandi women usually choose their own partners. The tribe’s matrilineal structure means that women are the heads of household, and all property is passed down the female line. Women make the first romantic move and propose marriage. “I was excited about finding the right man,” says Orola.
In recent years, many observers assumed the mother-daughter marriage custom had died out. Catholic missionaries have converted 90 percent of the tribe’s 25,000 Bangladeshi members, and many once-accepted Mandi practices are now taboo. These include the rare custom of “groom kidnapping,” in which Mandi women abduct potential husbands. Yet, while there are no official figures, one local leader claims there are “numerous” families who still follow the mother-daughter custom. “People stay quiet about it because having more than one wife is frowned on by the church,” says Shulekha Mrong, head of Achik Michik, a powerful women’s group run by Mandi female elders.
Today, Orola Dalbot is the mother of three children with Noten: a 14-year-old boy, a 7-year-old girl, and a 19-month-old girl. (Orola’s mother has a son and daughter with Noten.) The family lives in a cluster of mud houses in a village with no running water. The nearest town consists of a single row of ramshackle stalls selling cooking oil and candles. Orola and Mittamoni jointly own a few acres of land, from which they make a modest living cultivating pineapples and bananas.