Sengseng - Marriage and Family

Marriage. All women marry, but a number of men do not, fearing the physical weakening thought to afflict men who engage in sexual intercourse. Ideally, the woman chooses her own husband, singling out a man in the most approved Kinship category (classificatory, not true, mother's brother or mother's brother's son) at a dance and physically attacking him. He gives her a gift that indicates their betrothal. If her family members agree to the marriage, they deliver her to him with payments in shells and pigs. The payments from the man's side are larger and entitle his kin to expect that when the husband dies, the wife will be killed by her own closest male kin. Today, widow killing has been forbidden by the successive governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea, but remarriage for widows is still disapproved. Because marriage is for eternity, there is no divorce, but men are permitted to take more than one wife, who may be sisters. Relations between affines include many taboos on disrespectful or antagonistic behavior; fines in shells are demanded for any breach of these restrictions, and misfortune befalls the perpetrator. Most conspicuously, it is taboo to say any word that resembles the name of an affine of senior generation, and a special "married" vocabulary exists to deal with this problem. A great Social divide separates the married and unmarried; it is improper for the unmarried, especially men, to show any interest in such matters as the pregnancy of a married woman, and an unmarried man should not approach the house of a married man other than his own father.

Domestic Unit. Newlyweds usually live apart from others, largely because of sexual jealousy on the man's part. Those couples who have been married longer may join a settlement, but they almost always have their own house. The father moves permanently to the men's house once a daughter approaches adolescence. Boys sleep in the men's house from the age of about 7, but they may still come home to eat. Some older, unmarried men live alone or join forces with each other, calling on female kin for help with such tasks as weeding their gardens. Married couples with their older children work together in gardens.

Inheritance. The major wealth items, niklak and gold-lip pearl shells, are often buried to avoid theft, and they may be lost forever if the owner dies unexpectedly. In theory, niklak are inherited only by men, but a woman may receive small ones if she has no brothers, whereas larger ones go to a nephew. In general, the oldest man in a sibling set holds the valuables inherited from a father; when he dies, the next brother takes them over. The same rule applies to such male goods as spears, shields, and hourglass drums. Girls inherit any personal goods from the mother, with the eldest daughter usually taking precedence. All descendants of the planter can take fruit from his trees.

Socialization. In line with eventual courtship patterns, baby girls are encouraged to be physically aggressive as soon as they can toddle. Boys may fight with each other but should tolerate blows from girls. Both sexes are warned against engaging in any kind of premarital sexual behavior and must observe taboos on acts that might stunt their growth or, in the case of girls, affect eventual childbearing. Children are not held responsible for their actions until they are adolescent, and they enjoy considerable freedom, though little girls are expected to baby-sit and to help care for piglets. Almost from birth, babies are constantly sung to and bounced in rhythm, and many learn to carry a tune before they can talk.

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