Khevsur - Marriage and Family

Premarital Relations. The Khevsur retain a type of premarital relation between young people, called sts'orproba, that resembles practices observed among other peoples of the Caucasus (e.g., the ts'ats'loba of the neighboring Pshavs). The relation can range from a purely platonic, brother-sister bond to a sexual union. The two partners must be of opposite sex, and the relationship must not result in pregnancy. The Khevsur observe exogamy, and likewise sts'orproba is all but unknown between relatives. In cases of violation, the couple is liable to sanctions imposed by the villagers. Any form of adultery is avoided.

Sts'orproba seems to have a long history: it is believed to have been introduced into Khevsureti two to three centuries ago, during a period of political and economic turmoil in Georgia subsequent to the collapse of centralized feudal authority. Northern Caucasian mountaineers (Kistis and Lezgians) took advantage of the situation to conduct raids in Georgia, and the Khevsur were forced to arm themselves and maintain continual vigilance. One aspect of this state of alert was that men and women took to sleeping close together for mutual security. This, according to tradition, was the origin of sts'orproba. In practice, sts'orproba draws on the close relationships formed among young children who have been brought up together and also the custom of one woman serving as wet nurse for another woman's child. Two children who have fed at the same breast have a special bond.

The forming of sts'orproba begins with two people who share a mutual attraction but do not yet know each other well. To draw a woman into sts'orproba, the young man must woo her with charm and attentiveness. Khevsur women are generally attracted to temperamental, bold, and courageous men. The young woman acts discreetly, usually going to the man at night, a bottle of vodka ( araq'i ) in her hand. (In the neighboring Georgian district of Pshavi, it is the man who goes to the woman.) They meet in a remote part of the homestead, usually the stable. During the early stages the lovers ( sts'orperni ) are rather touchy and misunderstandings are common. They sense some shame at first, until their affection grows stronger and deeper. At first the lovers lie together, with caressing restricted to the area above the breast. According to tradition, the couple exchanges small gifts at the beginning of sts'orproba, with the "sister" fashioning ornamented items for her "brother," who reciprocates with a gift. When it is time to sleep the woman nestles herself against the man and thus they pass the night together. A significant point in the relation is reached when the young woman "undoes the collar" on her garment—as portrayed in Khevsur poetry, the woman feels great anxiety as she performs this act. In general the sts'orproba proceeds harmoniously, but should the reciprocal affections cool, the relation is gradually broken off. In such cases the woman, out of pride, does not let on to others what is occurring. Because marital agreements can be contracted between quite young children, sts'orproba can come to an abrupt end. Should one or the other of the sts'orperni be promised in marriage to another, they might withdraw for a while to mourn and overcome their distress. In earlier times it was very rare for sts'orproba to culminate in marriage between the sts'orperni, but this has become more common in recent years.

As mentioned earlier, pregnancy is to be avoided at all costs. The bearing of a child conceived in sts'orproba is considered tantamount to incest, and the guilty parties can be exiled from the community. To avoid such consequences, the couple resorts to coitus interruptus or limits sexual relations to the woman's infertile period. During menstruation Khevsur women must spend two or three days in the samrelo; a woman engaged in sts'orproba will extend this stay to up to ten days, during which she and her partner can unite sexually without much risk of pregnancy. Should a woman be caught in a "dishonorable" sts'orproba, it is she and her relatives—and not her lover—who are liable to ostracism. In many such cases the woman has chosen suicide.

The practice of sts'orproba is known to all members of the village community, and one can often identify those involved in it. Young men will boast of their activities, claiming that it is the sexual act that has transformed them from boys into men. Some might fall into melancholy from unhappy love, in which case the entire community will lend emotional support. Rivalries can ensue when one woman or man attracts the attention of several suitors at once. This may lead to exchanges of insults and curses, but in accordance with the avoidance of envy and jealousy in Khevsur society, these disputes are resolved amicably. It is permitted for a woman to have two lovers, though one must be platonic and the other physical. Two lovers of the same type are not allowed. Should the woman be obligated to choose among rivals, she will attempt to do so without unduly hurting anyone. Young lovers do not disguise their sts'orproba from their elders, but this does not change anything with respect to previously made marital agreements or the rights of the elders to forbid a relationship.

Once sts'orproba has been dissolved, for whatever reason, the sts'orperni continue to honor each other for the rest of their lives. They will never forget the wonderful times they spent together in their youth. Since almost everyone has experienced sts'orproba, a former lover is always hospitably received by his or her former sts'orperi's family, and no one would jealously hinder them from recalling their happy memories.

Marriage. Marital agreements were sometimes contracted by parents on behalf of children still in the cradle. Because the land could not support a large population, measures were taken to control the birth rate. A woman could not marry before the age of 20 and could not bear a child in the first four years of marriage. After each birth she was to wait at least three years before having another child. Premarital pregnancy was considered so shameful that many women faced with it have resorted to suicide.

Even though marital alliances might be contracted while the principals were still children, there is up to the present day a practice of symbolic abduction. The young man, bringing gifts and escorted by his friends, visits the home of the woman's parents, where a banquet is held. The young woman, feigning resistance, accompanies the young man to his parents' house; she remains there for a while, although without any intimate contact with the groom, and then returns home. The actual wedding takes place five or six days later, presided over by the khutsesi (see "Religious Beliefs and Practices" and "Death and Afterlife"). The community gathers in the groom's home, and the couple pledge their troth by the hearth. They are symbolically joined by a thread placed around their shoulders. After the wedding the marital relationship proceeds with considerable restraint. The couple spends three days together, then the wife returns to her parents' home once again, where the man must go to visit her, for a certain period of time. Only subsequently does the couple live together in the husband's house. Once established in her husband's home, the wife is expected to subordinate herself to the diasakhlisi, the senior woman of the household, and perform the tasks she assigns. Should the extended family become too large, the husband can request his appropriate portion of the property from his father and establish a separate household. The bride brings a dowry, consisting of clothing, fabric, and livestock. Any increase arising from the dowry belongs to the husband; in case of loss he must make up the difference. Should the marriage be dissolved, the woman returns to her ancestral home; she can subsequently remarry. If it is the wife who leaves the husband—which rarely happens—she must render compensation. Any children from the union remain in the husband's household.

Inheritance . The property of a man is inherited equally by his sons; his widow receives nothing. The sons are therefore responsible for her well-being. A mother's possessions are divided among the children, with clothing and fabrics going to her daughters.

Socialization, Traditionally, a pregnant woman and her family would be excluded from community events. When it was time to give birth she had to leave the village and repair to a shabby childbirth hut ( sachekhi ). Only in case of a difficult delivery could she have others to assist (relatives would attend her). All objects used by her were considered unclean and could not be used within the household. The birth of a son was welcomed more than that of a daughter. The father of a baby boy might entertain guests with beer and vodka for an entire week. In the nineteenth century a woman might have been confined to the hut for a month after the birth of a child and would come out only after a thorough purification, after which the hut was burned down. The birth was then announced to the community, and all invited guests would bring gifts and attend a banquet. Should a newborn die within seven weeks of birth, traditional practice dictated that the body be smeared with a mixture of ashes and water and then buried. Only after seven weeks would a child be given a Christian baptism. Despite the fact that much time was devoted to the raising of children, public displays of affection toward children were avoided and coddling only took place within the home.

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