THE SOLOMON ISLANDS PRACTICES, REPRESENTATIONS AND RAMIFICATIONS OF BRIDEWEALTH
Traditionally, in the Solomon Islands the amount of a bridewealth payment was not the result of negotiation: the groom's family knew what amount would be appropriate, taking into consideration diverse criteria such as the prestige of the family, the reputation of the girl, etc. More recently, the value of a bridewealth payment has become a subject of intense negotiation in some families. These negotiations take place primarily between the bride's and bridegroom's fathers or senior men of the respective families, who must agree on the amount of bridewealth to be given. However, the respective lineages of both families are also implicated, as they are solicited to contribute to the cash and goods offered during the bridewealth ceremony.
The gathering of bridewealth by the groom's kin and its distribution among the bride's kin trigger a series of debts that are part of a larger system of obligations, which, in some cases, may be extinguished only a generation later. As noted by Solomon Islands historian and political scientist Sam Alasia (1987:60): "Brideprice… is a form of exchange which involves relationships between many people over a very long time." Those who contribute to bridewealth are 1) those who desire to enter into a round of 'investments', and 2) those who have the social and moral obligations to do so because they have, directly or indirectly, benefitted from a previous transaction linking the same kin members, or those of their ascendant generation. In that sense, individuals can be contributors or recipients of bridewealth in different exchange ceremonies, 20 years after the initial and binding bridewealth took place. It can be said that bridewealth contributes to the integration of lineages and to their social reproduction.
Across the Solomon Islands, men and women alike interpret bridewealth in a variety of, often opposing, ways. While some claim that the practice of bridewealth exchange is akin to selling a daughter and demeans women, others claim that it celebrates the social value and the virtue of women. Proponents of the practice argue that bridewealth contributes to the cementing of families and that it is therefore a positive practice. Some vehemently oppose bridewealth because they argue that the practice harks back to the social world of the 'village' that they seek to escape, while others see it as proof that tradition (kastom in Solomon Islands Pijin) perdures in town. Still others deplore that it gives a measure of control to elders and kin over the younger generation, even when elders live in the distant home village.
Many also complain about the inflation in the amount paid for bridewealth, especially in urban families. Bridewealth demands of SDB$5,000 to SDB$20,000 in some urban families, in a country where the mean yearly salary remains SDB$15,000 (1 900 USD), make marriage prohibitive to some couples and at times, impossible. Proponents of high bridewealth demands argue that they seek higher amounts as a sign of social standing or as a return on what they see as an 'investment', primarily the resources invested in educating their daughters. In some cases, urban fathers have been known to keep the marriage of their daughters secret so as not to redistribute the bridewealth to their kin. These different perspectives on bridewealth reveal the transformations of the principles of mutual obligation that bind members of lineages and clans within an urban context, as well as the cultural transformations that are taking place in marriage practices in a period of rapid social change.
Increasingly, bridewealth has been denounced nationally as encouraging or condoning violence against women. Interviews with participants by our research team, and research carried out by NGOs, show some degree of correlation between the payment of bridewealth and the abuse of women by their husbands. This is particularly true of young couples. Though elders explain that paying bride price is not a license for a man to brutalize or insult his wife, data show that some young husbands, reinterpreting the meaning of bridewealth, feel that it does. 'Mi peem gele finis': hemi blong mi', some men say (I bought the girl; she belongs to me).
Young women are not passive in the social game of bridewealth exchange, though they have no official voice or role to play. They express different opinions on the practice. Some insist that a substantial amount be given for them and would be shamed by not fetching a good price. Others, acknowledging the customary value of bridewealth, and in some cases its inescapability if one wants to respect kin and tradition, try to convince their kin to set a lower price. 'I am not animal to be bought' one woman told a member of the research team. What matters here is the symbolic dimension of bridewealth and not its amount. Yet others seek to get married without bridewealth in order to escape the control of their in-laws or the heavy-handed pressures they put on the young couple for them to have many children.
It is important to remember that in Solomon Islands, bridewealth payments ensure the transfer of the wife's fertility to the husband's lineage. Marrying without braedpraes means the possibility, for women, to be in a better position to control their reproduction. If divorce occurs and bridewealth has been paid, in-laws have the right to claim the children born to the marriage. In a country where Common Law recognizes Customary Law as binding, marrying without braedpraes also means, for women, the insurance that they will keep their children in case of divorce. Bridewealth has thus a strong impact on women's reproductive autonomy and greatly influences the choice of marriage partners and patterns in the Solomon Islands.
Christine Jourdan and Fabienne Labbé
Alasia, Sam. 1987. "The Case for 'brideprice.'" O'O' A Journal of Solomon Islands Studies 1 (3): 59-67.