Essay: Dowry and Bride Price

In my last blog, I wrote about women in many traditional societies being considered an economic burden because their parents have to pay costly dowries when they marry.  In some societies, however, the groom pays the bride’s family a “bride price” in the form of money, livestock or goods – for the economic contribution she is expected to make to her new family.

I first heard of the practice of “bride price” when I was in rural Tanzania, some time ago, conducting a survey on women’s labour force participation.  Though the dowry, or bride price, had nothing to do with the subject of the survey, my co-workers told me about the local custom and that a father with three daughters would be very happy as he would receive a “bride price” for each one he married off.  I remember being impressed by this story as it was so different from the practice in my own country.  I even thought at that time that a woman’s social status in Tanzania must be higher than in Japan, as she was considered an asset rather than a liability.

In her paper on “Dowry and Pride Price, sociologist Sudeshna Maitra notes that the “bride price” is very often observed in societies in which polygyny (a husband with multiple wives) is practiced.  This was the case in the rural areas of Tanzania in which I worked, where villagers were predominantly Moslems.  There, the different wives of a man maintained their separate households by cultivating their own plots and fields, rather than being economically dependent on the husband.  Until I went to Tanzania I had believed that a man who had more than one wife had to be wealthy to be able to provide his wives with a comfortable living, but that was not the case there, where each wife had to earn her own and her children’s upkeep through hard work.  So my initial impression that women in Tanzania might command a higher social status than Japanese women rather dissipated into thin air.

My own personal experience backs up Sudeshna Maitra’s observation on “bride price”.  Soon after I completed my work in Tanzania, I took a trip to Egypt, visiting most of the major tourist sites in the country.  Toward the end of my visit, I met a young businessman whose family owned a large souvenir shop in Cairo, as well as, according to him, flower fields at some distance from the capital where different flowers were being cultivated and oils extracted from them.  I understood that the oils of flowers the family produced were being exported to France where they were made into perfumes of different fragrances.

When I showed an interest in seeing his flower fields, he wanted to take me to visit them the following weekend.  Unfortunately, however, I had to leave for Geneva the next day.  He then said he would offer my family 40 camels if I would marry him.  I knew from my experience in Tanzania that he was talking about “bride price”.  I did not know if he was already married then, but his society would have allowed him to have multiple wives if he so wished.  While 40 camels must have had a considerable economic value in Egypt in those days, the animals would have been miserable in the Japanese climate and my family would not have known what to do with them.  Besides, he and I hardly knew each other — I politely declined his proposal.

In any case, I have never liked the idea either of dowry or bride price.  I feel that concepts reduce women to the level of material objects that are transferred to different hands through economic transactions by their owners.  In my view, dowry or bride price has no place in a union between a liberated man and an equally free-minded woman.

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