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NO-FATHERS DAY: Remote Group Has No Dads, And Never Did

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 18, 2009
 
What would Father's Day—and every other day—be like without fathers? Maybe not so bad, according to experts on the Mosuo culture of the Chinese Himalaya.

The women of this matrilineal society shun marriage and raise their kids in homes with their entire extended families—but no dads.

By most accounts, children seem to do just fine under the arrangement.

"They are a society that we know hasn't had marriage for a thousand years, and they've been able to raise kids successfully," said Stephanie Coontz, family studies professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

(Also see "Father's Day 2009: Facts, Gifts, More.")

No Fathers: It Makes Genetic Sense?

Men of the Mosuo, who live around Lugu Lake on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, do help to raise kids—just not their own, with whom the men typically have only limited relationships.

Instead the men help look after all the children born to their own sisters, aunts, and other women of the family.

Rather than "one father with a kid, it will be four or five uncles. That [father] role is shared among a number of people, and these are very large extended families," explained John Lombard, director of the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association.

The unusual parenting arrangement makes genetic sense, in terms of extending the family line—and many Mosuo men actually think of it that way, Lombard said.

"If you [father] a child with another woman, you can never be absolutely sure that the child really shares your genes," he said. "But if your sister has a child, you can be 100 percent sure that the kid shares some of your genes."

"Walking Marriages" But No Fathers

The women of the Mosuo's agricultural villages head the households, make business decisions, and own property, which they pass on to their matrilineal heirs.

In the unique Mosuo tradition called the walking marriage, women invite men to visit their rooms at night—and to leave in the morning.

Women may also change partners as often as they like, and promiscuity carries no social stigma.

The practice has made the Mosuo famous, particularly to male Chinese tourists, many of whom see the walking marriages as evidence of sexual liberation and wanton lust, experts say.

Though there are tourist-oriented brothels in Mosuo villages, most are staffed with non-Mosuo women and are considered shameful by the Mosuo, according to the the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association Web site.

"I think sometimes the media gets carried away with the possibility that the women can have all these husbands," said filmmaker Xiaoli Zhou, who produced and reported the 2006 documentary on the Mosuo, The Women's Kingdom.

In fact, most Mosuo women don't change walking-marriage partners very frequently. And they rarely carry on more than one romantic relationship at a time.

"Many of the women I interviewed had only had one or two relationships in their lives," Zhou said.

Family First

The lack of live-in fathers shouldn't be taken as evidence that the Mosuo don't value family life, said Lombard, of the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association.

In fact, they value it above all other relationships—particularly those founded on the sometimes fickle feelings of male-female amour, he said.

Extended families of siblings, uncles, aunts, and others are said to be extremely stable, Lombard added.

For example, there are no divorces to destablize the families. And even the death of a child's biological father has little effect on the family, given the father's distance from the family and the extensive support network in the household.

Brent Huffman, co-producer of The Women's Kingdom, said, "The society does kind of create this question: Are fathers really necessary?

"It's hard to think of in Western society, but there, it works."
 

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