Wife selling is the practice of a husband selling his wife and may include the sale of a female by a party outside a marriage. Wife selling has had numerous purposes throughout the practice's history; and the term "wife sale" is not defined in all sources relating to the topic.
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Sometimes, a wife was sold by a husband to a new husband as a means of divorce, in which case sometimes the wife was able to choose who would be her new husband, provided she chose within a certain time period, and especially if the wife was young and sexually attractive. In some societies, the wife could buy her own way out of a marriage or either spouse could have initiated this form of divorce. Reducing a husband's liability for family support and prenuptial debts was another reason for wife sale. Taxes were sometimes paid by selling a wife and children and paying the value as the required amount, especially when taxes were too high to permit basic survival. Famine leading to starvation was a reason for some sales. Gambling debts could be paid by selling a free or slave wife. A society might not allow a woman the rights reserved to men regarding spouse sale and a society might deny her any rights if her husband chose to sell her, even a right of refusal. A divorce that was by mutual consent but was without good faith by the wife at times caused the divorce to be void, allowing her to then be sold. A husband might sell his wife and then go to court seeking compensation for the new man's adultery with the wife. By one law, adultery was given as a justification for a husband selling his wife into concubinage.
A free wife might be sold into slavery, such as if she had married a serf or her husband had been murdered. Sometimes, a slave-master sold an enslaved wife. Enslaved families were often broken up and wives, husbands, and children sold to separate buyers, often never to see each other again, and a threat to sell a wife was used to keep an enslaved husband under a master's discipline. In wartime, one side might, possibly falsely, accuse the other of wife sale as a method of spying. A wife could also be treated as revenue and seized by the local government because a man had died leaving no heirs. Wife sale was sometimes the description for the sale of a wife's services; it might be for a term of years followed by freedom. If a sale was temporary, in some cases wife sale was considered temporary only in that the sold-and-remarried wife would, upon her death, be reunited with her first husband.
Constraints existed in law and practice and there were criticisms. Some societies specifically forbade wife sales, even imposing death upon husbands violating the law, but a legal proscription was sometimes avoided or evaded, such as by arranging an adoption with a payment and an outcome similar to that of a sale. A society might tax or fine a wife sale without banning it. The nearness of a foreign military sometimes constrained a master in a slave sale that otherwise would have divided a family. Among criticisms, some of the sales (not of services alone but entirely of wives) have been likened to sales of horses. Wives for sale were treated like capital assets or commodities. One law made wives into husbands' chattels. Other sales were described as brutal, patriarchal, and feudalistic. Wife sales were equated with slavery. One debate about the whole of Africa was whether Africans viewed the practice as no crime at all or as against what Africans thought valuable and dear. Some modern popular songs against wife sale are vehicles for urban antipoverty and feminist organizing for rights. A story in a popular collection written by a feminist was about a suggestion for wife sale and the wife's objection to discussing it followed by no wife sale occurring. Another story is about a feminist advocate for justice in which a husband is censored or censured for selling his wife in a gamble.
Wife selling has been found in many societies over many centuries and occasionally into modern times, including the United States (including in Hawaii among the Japanese, among Indians in the Gallinomero, Yurok, Carolina, and Florida tribes and in the Pacific Northwest, and among natives on Kodiak Island in what is now Alaska), Colombia, England, Australia (among aborigines), Denmark (possibly), Hungary, France, Germany, India, Japan, Malaya (among Chinese laborers), Thailand (at least permitted), Northern Asia (among the Samoyads), Asia Minor (among the Yourouk), Kafiristan, Indonesia (albeit not outright), Tanganyika, Congo, Bamum, Central Africa (among the Baluba), Zambia, South Africa (among Chinese laborers), Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nigeria (possibly), Abyssinia, Egypt, Lombardy, ancient Rome (sometimes as a legal fiction and sometimes as actual), ancient Greece, and ancient Emar (of Syria). In Rwanda, it was the subject of a wartime accusation. Specific bans existed in Thailand, Indonesia, ancient Rome, and ancient Israel and partial bans existed in England and Japan. Wife sale was a topic of popular culture in India, the U.S., China, Scandinavia, Nepal, Guatemala, and the Dutch Indies. It has been found in Christianity and Judaism.