Sisterwives are women who are married, as a group, to the same man. As a general rule, sisterwives have equal status in the relationship, each bringing their own unique talents and personalities into the marriage. The use of the term “sisterwife” varies; some people describe themselves as sisterwives, for example, while in other cultures the relationship between women in a group or polygamous marriage is not expressed with this term.
In countries where polygamy is illegal, sisterwives often use this term to express solidarity with each other, cementing the idea that they are a family, even if they are not legally related. Group and polygamous marriages in cultures where this practice is frowned upon get around restrictions in a variety of ways. For example, a man might marry and divorce a series of women who all take his name and identify as sisterwives, or people might choose to wed in private ceremonies which have no legal standing.
In some cultures, the first wife has a special status, even if she identifies as a sisterwife. This reflects her long-running relationship, and it may entitle her to special privileges. In other cases, sisterwives do not distinguish between each other, and the identity of the first wife may be a private matter which is shared among family members only, to avoid singling her out in public.
Marriages which involve more than two individuals take a wide number of forms, and they are often associated with religious or cultural traditions. The participants in such a marriage generally negotiate their own personal boundaries and beliefs, often reinforced by religious values surrounding marriage and spousal duty. Some anthropologists believe that there are distinct benefits to polyamorous marriage, especially for the sisterwives themselves, who enjoy the support and companionship of a group of like-minded women in their daily lives. Others worry that polygamous marriage is exploitative, especially for women and girls.
Technically, sisterwives are in what is known as a polygynous marriage, meaning a multiple marriage with one man and an assortment of women. In a polyandrous marriage, one women would be married to an assortment of men, who could presumably identify as brother husbands, if they choose. Some anthropologists use the term “polygamy” to refer specifically to a type of marriage in which there is a mixture of wives and husbands; for example, a women might be married to two men and one woman. In what is known as a group or circular marriage, a group of people are married to each other, with no primary spouse around which the marriage revolves; the women in such a marriage may also choose to call themselves sisterwives.