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Bride price
Ground rules
Open marriage
Platonic love

A wife is a female spouse, or participant in a marriage.

Origin and etymology

The term originated from the Middle English wif, from Old English wīf, woman, wife, from Germanic * wībam, woman, related to Modern German Weib (woman, wife),[1] from the Indo-European root ghwībh-; wīb, meaning veiled or clothed, referred to the wedding veils.[2]. The original meaning of “wife” as simply “woman”, unconnected with marriage, is preserved in words like “midwife” and “fishwife”.

Related terminology

Although “wife” seems to be a close term to bride, the latter is a female participant in a wedding ceremony, while a wife is a married woman after the wedding, during her marriage. Her partner, if male, was known as the bridegroom during the wedding, and within the marriage is called her husband. Upon marriage, she or her family may have brought her husband a dowry, or the husband or his family may have needed to pay a bride price to the family of his bride, or both were exchanged between the families; the dowry not only supported the establishment of a household, but also served as a condition that if the husband committed grave offences upon his wife, the dowry had to be returned to the wife or her family; for the time of the marriage, they were made inalienable by the husband.[3] A former wife whose spouse is deceased is a widow, and may be left with a dower (often a third or a half of his estate) to support her as dowager.[4]

Wife refers especially to the institutionalized form in relation to the spouse and offspring, unlike mother, a term that puts a woman into the context of her children. Also compare the similar sounding midwife, a person assisting in childbirth (“Mother midnight” emphasizes to a midwife’s power over life and death).[5]

A wife may, in some cultures and times, share the title of her husband, without having gained that title by her own right.[6]

Differences in cultures

The various divisions of the following chapters share the previous terminology in English language, notwithstanding religious and cultural, but also customary differences.


Many traditions like the wedding ring and a dower, dowry and bride price have long traditions in antiquity. The exchange of any item or value goes back unto the oldest sources, and the wedding ring likewise was always used as a symbol for keeping faith to a person.

Western culture

Historical status

Western culture, that is Western Europe and also many of their former colonies, were guided by the Bible in regard to their view on the position of a wife in society as well as her marriage. This image changed considerably in the age of Modernity.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern history, it was unusual to marry out of love,[7] though it became an ideal in literature.[8] Women were not expected to have any property:[9] they only were given a dowry by their parents to give her husband[10] and inherited only if there were no male offspring.[11] Unable to procure for herself, a woman had to submit to the husband chosen to avoid problems (prostitution, or a criminal career,[12]), which has been dealt with extensively in literature, where the most important reason for the lack of equal rights was the denial of equal education for women.[13] The situation was assessed by the English conservative moralist Sir William Blackstone: “The husband and wife are one, and the husband is the one.”[14] The situation changed only in the Married Women’s Property Act 1882. Though the wife was generally expected to support the political faction favoured by the husband, satirists like Joseph Addison suggested ironically that the marriage contract might allow the wives to join the political faction independently in order to suit the expectations of their environment, or their peer group.[15] Until late in the 20th century, women could in some cultures or times sue a man for wreath money when he took her virginity without taking her as his wife.[16]

If a woman did not want to marry, another option was entering a convent as a nun[17] to become a “bride to Jesus”,[18] a state in which her chastity would be protected[19] and the woman was economically protected as well.[20] Both a wife and a nun wore veils, which proclaimed their state of protection by the rights of marriage.[21]

Contemporary status

In the 20th century, the role of the wife in Western marriage changed in two major ways; the first was the breakthrough from an “institution to companionate marriage”;[22] for the first time, wives became distinct legal entities, and were allowed their own property and allowed to sue. Until then, wife and husband were a single legal entity, but only the husband was allowed to exercise this right. The second change was the drastic alteration of family life, when in the 1960s wives began to work outside their home, and with the social acceptance of divorces the single-parent family, and stepfamily or “blended family” as a more “individualized marriage”.[23]

Today, a woman may wear a wedding ring in order to show her status as a wife.[24]

In Western countries today, married women may have education, a profession and take time off from their work in a legally procured system of ante-natal care, statutory maternity leave, and they may get maternity pay or a maternity allowance.[25] The status of marriage, as opposed to unmarried pregnant women, allows the spouse to be responsible for the child, and to speak on behalf of his/her wife; a husband is also responsible for the wife’s child in states where he is automatically assumed to be the biological father.[26] Vice versa, a wife has more legal authority in some cases when she speaks on behalf of a spouse than she would have if they were not married, e.g. when her spouse is in a coma after an accident, a wife may have the right of advocacy.[27] If they divorce, she also might receive - or pay - alimony (see Law and divorce around the world).


Women in Islam have a range of rights and obligations (see main article Rights and obligations of spouses in Islam. Marriage takes place on the basis of a marriage contract, and for a husband to have more than one wife is very rare.[28] Even today, in some Muslim societies the father may decide whose wife his daughter is going to be, although this custom is not based on religion but tradition.[29] Beating his wife, however, is defined as a husband’s right in most schools of Islam, but is strongly discouraged by hadiths.Template:Cite quran.

Women in general are supposed to wear specific clothes, as stated by the hadith, like the hijab, which may take different sizes depending on the Muslim culture, but they are not obliged to do so.[30] The husband must pay a mahr to the bride, which is similar to the dower.[31]

Though for wives there seem to be no external signs, other than being allowed to reveal their entire head to her husband, which is not only stated by the Qur’an but known by even older customs.[32]

File:Muslim wedding in India.jpg

A riverside Muslim wedding in India.

The situation of a wife in Muslim society is controversial: Some groups criticize the condition of wives as being “miserable”,[33] and propose intolerance to the rule that a husband may beat his wife.[34] Based on the fundamentals of Islam, they emphasize that according to the Scripture, “the Prophet(s) said: “Do not beat your wife” and “Do not strike your wife in the face.”[35] Traditionally, the wife has had a high esteem in Islam as a protected, chaste person that manages the household and the family. Progressive Muslims today may also agree on a perfectly equal relationship.[36] The majority, however, is vastly different; not only does sura four, the An-Nisa, allow to beat a wife, but in Germany, a Muslim won a case in Frankfurt when his wife wanted an immediate divorce (additional to the separation already in place, without the one years’ respite) due to domestic violence; her request was rejected, based on the argument that it was “custom” and “based on Islamic law”. Critics commented the verdict legitimized beating one’s wife (see source); in another case, murder of someone for “causing dishonor” ended in sentence of homicide instead, because the person on trial was a Muslim brother killing his sister.[37]

Traditionally, Muslim married women are not distinguished from unmarried women by an outward symbol (such as a wedding ring). However women’s wedding rings have recently been adopted in the past thirty years from the Western culture.[38] Traditionally and most commonly, the only sign of the marriage is the nikah,[39] the written marriage contract.


In Hindi, wife means a women who shares every thing in this world with her husband and he does the same, including their identity. Decisions are ideally made in mutual consent. A wife usually takes care of anything inside her household, including the family’s health, the children’s education, a parent’s needs.

In Tamil, a wife is known as a “Manaivee”. “Manai” means “house”, and “manaivee” “head of a household”. The majority of Hindu marriages in South India even now are arranged marriages, which means parents that have a son will search for parents with a daughter, through relatives, neighbourhoods, or even brokers. Once they find a suitable family (family of same caste, culture and financial status), they proceed with discussions directly. In the past decades, a marriage out of love has become a rivalling model to the arranged marriage.

Indian law has recognised marital rape, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse of a woman by her husband as crimes. The Britannica mentions that “Until quite recently, the only property of which a Hindu woman was the absolute owner was her strīdhana, consisting mainly of wedding gifts and gifts from relatives.”[40]

Commonly, a wife wears a red dot on her forehead to show her status as a married woman.

Buddhism and Chinese folk religions

China’s family laws were changed by the Communist revolution; and in 1950, the People’s Republic of China enacted a comprehensive marriage law including provisions giving the spouses equal rights with regard to ownership and management of marital property.[41]

See also


  1. Etymology of “Weib”
  2. American Heritage Dictionary on “wife”
  3. Britannica 2005, dowry
  4. Merriam-Webster, dower
  5. Merriam-Webster on Midwife, and Britannica, midwife
  6. Sharing the husband’s title
  7. William C. Horne, Making a heaven of hell: the problem of the companionate ideal in English marriage, poetry, 1650-1800 Athens (Georgia), 1993
  8. Frances Burney, Evelina, Lowndes 1778, and Seeber, English Literary History of the eighteenth century, Weimar 1999
  9. Elizabeth M. Craik, Marriage and property, Aberdeen 1984
  10. Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, To Marry An English Lord, p166-7, ISBN 0-89480-939-3
  11. Future of the Children
  12. Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders: theoretical preface
  13. for the 18th and 19th century, which contained much criticism of these facts, see also Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Boston 1792
  14. William Blackstone, Commentaries upon the Laws of England
  15. Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No.81
  16. Brockhaus 2004, Kranzgeld .
  17. Though cloisters’ practices were not bound by modern national borders, see sources for Spain, for Italy, and for Britain
  18. (Taking) The White Veil
  19. (Taking) The White Veil
  20. The welfare of the cloister members was ensured by the Catholic Church and the Pope.
  21. Silvia Evangelisti, Wives, Widows, And Brides Of Christ: Marriage And The Convent In The Historiography Of Early Modern Italy, Cambridge 2000
  22. ”Companionship marriage” and “companionate marriage” are synonyms (the latter being the older one), although the term usually refers to a relationship based on equality, it might instead refer to a marriage with mutual interest in their children, [1]
  23. Stepfamily as individualized marriage
  24. Howard, Vicki. “A ‘Real Man’s Ring”: Gender and the Invention of Tradition.” Journal of Social History. Summer 2003 pp837-856
  25. Maternity pay and allowance, and work and family guide
  26. Cuckoo’s egg in the nest, Spiegel 07, 2007
  27. The restrictions of her abilities to do this vary immensely even within a legal system, see case NY vs. Fishman, 2000
  28. The New Encyclopedia of Islam(2002), AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7591-0189-2 p.477
  29. Spiegel 07, 2007
  30. Clothes
  31. Qur’an verse 4;4
  32. Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito. Islam, Gender, and Social Change, Published 1998. Oxford University Press, US. ISBN 0-19-511357-8.
  33. miserable quote
  34. Wives in Islam controversy
  35. Dr. Haddad, Damascus, Responsibilities of a husband
  36. Heba G. Kotb M.D., Sexuality in Islam, PhD Thesis, Maimonides University, 2004
  37. Both cases are described in the main article of Der Spiegel (13), 2007, p.23f, cf. summary
  38. Westernized Muslims
  39. Nikah in marriage
  40. Britannica, Legal limitations on marriage (from family law)
  41. Britannica 2004, Legal limitations on marriage (from family law)

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