What is bridewealth?

Bridewealth Project

The anthropologist Roger Keesing defined bridewealth as "[m]arriage payments from the husband and his kin to the bride's kin." Essentially this means that bridewealth marriages are those in which the groom (and often his family) remit a payment in some form to the bride's family in order to officialize a marriage. Typically, "these payments balance a transfer of rights over the wife's sexuality, work services, residence, and fertility" (Keesing 1981 : 508). These payments were traditionally made in the form of valuables (e.g. shell valuables in the Pacific, cattle in most parts of Africa and livestock and jewelry in many countries of Asia). However, increasingly globalized market economies inform the commodities in contemporary exchanges, which can consist of cash, practical necessities and tools, as well as luxury goods. Bridewealth remains the most common form of marriage transaction in the world. Among the 563 cultures listed in Murdock's World Atlas of Cultures (1981), 226 practice bridewealth.

The Rationale Behind Bridewealth

Comparative anthropology has shown that bridewealth is more likely to be paid amongst populations whose main mode of food getting system is horticulture or pastoralism. Typically, these societies are found in East and North Africa, the Middle-East, Central Asia and the Pacific. In many of these societies, when the girl marries, she leaves her parents' family, and sometimes her village, and continues her life in her husband's village or family (virilocality). In her new married life, the bride's labor benefits her husband (and at times her husbands' family) and no longer benefits her family of birth.

Bridewealth is said to establish strong social bonds by opening kinship roads between the families of the bride and the groom and to formalize an alliance between different clans. Many speak of bridewealth as a token of respect for the girl and her family, and a form of appreciation for the hard work they put into raising her. It is also understood as a form of compensation for the loss of labor, productive and reproductive, the bride's family incurs when she marries and moves out. Her children will belong to the lineage and clan of their father.

Also known as bride price, bride token, or under different vernacular names (e.g. lobola in South Africa, sin sod in Thailand, walwar in Afghanistan or ambra poka among the Maring of Papua New Guinea), the practice of exchanging goods from the husband's family to the bride's family upon marriage has been practiced for centuries. The Code of Hammurabi details this practice in ancient Mesopotamia, the books of Genesis and Exodus dictate regulations for the payment of Moha (from the groom to the bride's father) and passages from the Iliad and the Odyssey suggest that bridewealth was a custom in Homeric Greece. The practice of paying bridewealth maintains cultural importance in a number of contemporary societies where it persists not only in rural areas, but in urban settings as well, including in the marital unions of the well-educated middle and upper class.

Critiques of Bridewealth: Constraints on Men

Though many individuals in communities where bridewealth is practiced value the custom as a method for linking families, as a demonstration of a potential husband's ability to provide for a woman's future and more generally as a material expression of the value of women in their societies, the practice is criticized by many. The inflation in the quantity and cost of objects exchanged as well as the sums of money often demanded in bridewealth exchanges is roundly denounced, even by those practicing it, and creates situations in which some men, particularly those issued from lower or impoverished social classes, are no longer able to marry as they lack the necessary funds. The inflation of bridewealth payments and the increasing monetarization of the practice are often the source of household debts. In some societies, this increase may lead young men to take out loans, often equivalent to several years' salary, and in extreme cases, to steal in order to satisfy the demands of their bride's families (for example, the rising problem of "cattle rustling" correlated to bridewealth demands in countries like Kenya and South Sudan). In all cases, the young couple is indebted, morally or/and financially, to the family of the husband.

Critiques of Bridewealth: Constraints on Women

Bridewealth exchange is also criticized for its impacts on girls and women. In a number of societies, the practice is said to be associated with child marriages and forced marriages, as marrying daughters is a way for impoverished families to acquire money. Further critiques of bridewealth argue that the practice not only condones, but encourages domestic violence and a hindering of women's agency, especially in the case of divorce and the custody of children issued from a marriage. When bridewealth was paid, and where customary law coexists with modern law, children's custody is often given to the father and his family, as bridewealth is also meant to secure the products of women's fertility. In addition, in the event a woman seeks divorce in a union where bridewealth was paid, her family is generally obligated to reimburse the bridewealth either in full or in part. Women who are unable to mobilize the necessary funds for the reimbursement (via their families, or another man who is interested in marrying them) are therefore unable to leave unhappy, or even violent relationships.

Though proponents of the practice often argue that the practice is not akin to 'selling daughters' and even though the terminology associated with the practice in native languages does not always connote economic exchange, some critics maintain that bridewealth is associated with the commodification of women, and encourages men's conceptions of having 'bought' a woman.

The debate about the meanings and social implications of bridewealth is strongly-divided and is an issue that affects the lives of thousands of young people attempting to marry across the world. Bridewealth, or more specifically the relevance of practicing bridewealth, is the subject of television and radio programs, feature length films (for example, Fanie Furie's Lobola), magazines, Websites and blogs, in addition to being a cause taken up by a number of non-profit organizations globally (e.g. MIFUMI). The debate about bridewealth in the 21st century is not only a question of gender, sexuality, marital exchange and power, but also a question of modernization, cultural practice, and cultural identity.

Christine Jourdan, Alexis Black and Fabienne Labbé

References

Keesing, Roger M. 1981. Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Murdock, George Peter. 1981. Atlas of World Cultures. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Pretorius, Henk. 2013. Fanie Fourie's Lobola.