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A wife is a female partner in a continuing marital relationship. A wife may also be referred to as a spouse. The term continues to be applied to a woman who has separated from her husband and ceases to be applied to such a woman only when her marriage has come to an end following a legally recognised divorce or the death of her spouse. On the death of her husband, a wife is referred to as a widow, but not after she is divorced from her husband.
The rights and obligations of the wife in relation to her husband, and others, and her status in the community and in law, varies between cultures and has varied over time. In a heterosexual relationship, a woman's spouse is her husband.
The word is of Germanic origin, from Proto-Germanic *wībam, "woman". In Middle English it had the form wif, and in Old English wīf, "woman or wife". It is related to Modern German Weib (woman, female), and may derive ultimately from the Indo-European root ghwībh- "shame; pudenda" (cf. Tocharian B kwīpe and Tocharian A kip, each meaning "female pudenda", with clear sexual overtones) The original meaning of the phrase "wife" as simply "woman", unconnected with marriage or a husband/wife, is preserved in words such as "midwife" and "fishwife".
In most cultures, with marriage it is generally expected that a woman will take her husband's surname, though that is not universal. A married woman may indicate her marital status in a many ways: in Western culture she would commonly wear a wedding ring but in other cultures other markers of marital status may be used. A married woman is commonly given the honorific title "Mrs", but some married women prefer to be referred to as "Ms", a title which is also used when the marital status of a woman is unknown.
A woman on her wedding day is usually described as a bride, even after the wedding ceremony, while being described as a wife is also appropriate after the wedding or after the honeymoon. Historically, her male partner was known as the bridegroom during the wedding, and within the marriage is called her husband. Traditionally, the bride or her family may have brought her husband a dowry, or the husband or his family may have paid a bride price to the bride's family, or both were exchanged between the families. The dowry was paid not only to support the establishment of a new household, but also served as a condition that if the husband committed grave offenses upon his wife, the dowry had to be returned to the wife or her family; but during the marriage, they were made inalienable by the husband. 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. A wife may, in some cultures and times, share the title or the surname of her husband, without having gained that title by her own right.
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). In some societies, especially historically, a concubine was a woman who was in an ongoing, usually matrimonially oriented relationship with a man who could not be married to her, often because of a difference in social status.
The term wife is most commonly applied to a woman in a legally, loyally and sanctioned marriage, not to a woman in another cohabitation relationship such as a concubine, mistress etc. However, a woman in a so-called common law marriage may describe herself as a common law wife, de facto wife, or simply a wife; but sometimes the female is described as "girlfriend" or "partner". Those seeking to advance gender neutrality may refer to both marriage partners as "spouses", and many countries and societies are rewording their statute law by replacing "wife" and "husband" with "spouse". In a marriage between two women, both spouses may be considered wives. Also, in a polygamous marriage, each woman is described as a wife.
Many traditions like a dower, dowry and bride price have long traditions in antiquity. The exchange of any item or value goes back to the oldest sources, and the wedding ring likewise was always used as a symbol for keeping faith to a person.
Christian cultures claim to be guided by the New Testament in regard to their view on the position of a wife in society as well as her marriage. For example, the New Testament condemns divorce for both men and women (1 Cor 7:10–11), and assumes monogamy on the part of the husband: the woman is to have her "own" husband, and the husband was to have his "own" wife (1 Cor 7:2). In medieval Christianity, this was understood to mean that a wife should not share her husband with other wives. As a result, divorce was relatively uncommon in the pre-modern West, particularly in the medieval and early modern period, and husbands in the Roman, later medieval and early modern period did not publicly take more than one wife.
In pre-modern times, it was unusual to marry for love alone, although it became an ideal in literature by the early modern period. Roman law required brides to be at least 12 years old, a standard adopted by Catholic canon law. In Roman law, first marriages to brides aged 12–25 required the consent of the bride and her father, but by the late antique period Roman law permitted women over 25 to marry without parental consent. The New Testament allows a widow to marry any Christian she chooses (1 Cor 7:39). In the 12th century, the Catholic Church drastically changed legal standards for marital consent by allowing daughters over 12 and sons over 14 to marry without their parents' approval, even if their marriage was made clandestinely. Parish studies have confirmed that late medieval women did sometimes marry against their parents' approval. The Catholic Church's policy of considering clandestine marriages and marriages made without parental consent to be valid was controversial, and in the 16th century both the French monarchy and the Lutheran church sought to end these practices, with limited success.
The New Testament made no pronouncements about wives' property rights, which in practice were influenced more by secular laws than religion. Most influential in the pre-modern West was the civil law, except in English-speaking countries where English common law emerged in the High Middle Ages. In addition, local customary law influenced wives' property rights; as a result wives' property rights in the pre-modern West varied widely from region to region. Because wives' property rights and daughters' inheritance rights varied widely from region to region due to differing legal systems, the amount of property a wife might own varied greatly. Under Roman law, daughters inherited equally from their parents if no will was produced, under the English common law system, which dates to the later medieval period, daughters and younger sons were usually excluded from landed property if no will was produced. In addition, Roman law recognized wives' property as legally separate from husbands's property, as did some legal systems in parts of Europe and colonial Latin America. In contrast, English common law moved to a system where a wife with a living husband ("feme couvert") could own little property in her own name. Unable to easily support herself, marriage was very important to most women's economic status. This problem has been dealt with extensively in literature, where the most important reason for women's limited power was the denial of equal education and equal property rights for females. The situation was assessed by the English conservative moralist Sir William Blackstone: "The husband and wife are one, and the husband is the one." Married women's property rights in the English-speaking world improved with the Married Women's Property Act 1882 and similar legal changes, which allowed wives with living husbands to own property in their own names. Until late in the 20th century, women could in some regions or times sue a man for wreath money when he took her virginity without taking her as his wife.
If a woman did not want to marry, another option was entering a convent as a nun. to become a "bride of Christ", a state in which her chastity and economic survival would be protected. Both a wife and a nun wore veils, which proclaimed their state of protection by the rights of marriage. Much more significant than the option of becoming a nun, was the option of non-religious spinsterhood in the West. As first demonstrated quantitatively by John Hajnal, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the percentage of non-clerical Western women who never married was typically as high as 10–15%, a prevalence of female celibacy never yet documented for any other major traditional civilization. In addition, early modern Western women married at quite high ages (typically mid to late 20s) relative to other major traditional cultures. The high age at first marriage for Western women has been shown by many parish reconstruction studies to be a traditional Western marriage pattern that dates back at least as early as the mid-16th century.
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"; 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 middle and upper-class family life, when in the 1960s these 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".
In Western countries today, married women usually have an education, a profession and they (or their husbands) can 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. 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 wife; a husband is also responsible for the wife's child in states where he is automatically assumed to be the biological legal father. 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. 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. Forcing a woman to marry is strictly forbidden although it is wrongly practiced by many uneducated Muslims. The arranged marriage is relatively common in traditionalist families, whether in Muslim countries or as first or second generation immigrants elsewhere.
Women in general are supposed to wear specific clothes, as stated by the hadith, like the hijab, which may take different styles depending on the culture of the country, where traditions may seep in.[Quran 24:31][Quran 33:59] The husband must pay a mahr to the bride, which is similar to the dower.
Traditionally, the wife in Islam is seen as a protected, chaste person that manages the household and the family. She has the ever important role of raising the children and bringing up the next generation of Muslims. In Islam, it is highly recommended that the wife remains at home although they are fully able to own property or work. The husband is obligated to spend on the wife for all of her needs while she is not obligated to spend even if she is wealthy. The Prophet commanded all Muslim men to treat their wives well. In fact in the hadith he even said "The best of you are those who are best to their wives".
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.
In Indo-Aryan languages, a wife is known as Patni, which means a woman who shares everything 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.
The majority of Hindu marriages in rural and traditional India are arranged marriages. Once they find a suitable family (family of same caste, culture and financial status), the boy and the girl see and talk to each other to decide the final outcome. In recent times however the western culture has had significant influence and the new generations are more open to the idea of marrying for love.
Indian law has recognized rape, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse of a woman by her husband as crimes. In Hinduism, a wife is known as a Patni or Ardhangini (similar to "the better half") meaning a part of the husband or his family. In Hinduism, a woman or man can get married, but only have one husband or wife respectively.
In India, women may wear vermillion powder on their foreheads, an ornament called Mangalsutra (Hindi मंगळसूत्र ) which is a form of necklace, or rings on their toes (which are not worn by single women) to show their status as married women.
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.
In Japan, before enactment of the Meiji Civil Code of 1898, all of the woman's property such as land or money passed to her husband except for personal clothing and a mirror stand. See Women in Japan, Law of Japan
There is a widely held expectation, which has existed for most of recorded history and in most cultures, that a wife is not to have sexual relations with anyone other than her legal husband. A breach of this expectation of fidelity is commonly referred to as adultery or extramarital sex. Historically, adultery has been considered to be a serious offense, sometimes a crime, and even a sin. Even if that is not so, it may still have legal consequences, particularly as a ground for a divorce. Adultery may be a factor to consider in a property settlement, it may affect the status of children, the custody of children; moreover, adultery can result in social ostracism in some parts of the world. In addition, affinity rules of the Christian Church, of Judaism and of Islam prohibit an ex-wife or widow from engaging in sexual relations with and from marrying a number of relatives of the former husband.
In parts of the world, adultery may result in violent acts, such as honor killings or stoning. Some jurisdictions, especially those that apply Sharia law, allow for such acts to take place legally. For example, part of article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan states that "he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty."
As of September 2010, stoning is a legal punishment in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and some states in Nigeria as punishment for zina al-mohsena ("adultery of married persons").
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