Dowries and Bride Price
One of the more fascinating things to me are the differences in cultures, why people act and think as they do differently from others. All of us who have spent time outside our native countries have experienced this, but I always try (not always successfully) to understand the “why” and “how”.
A recent sub called “WEIRD People” was a summary of a recent book which attempted to address some of these issues (https://www.stickmanbangkok.comreaders-submissions/2020/09/weird-people/). Many of the kind Stickman readers who responded to that sub indicated an interest in reading more cultural subs. One reader said that he read it twice, something he never does.
An older sub from five years ago “Wheat People Rice People” (https://www.stickmanbangkok.comreaders-submissions/2015/01/wheat-people-rice-people/) also tried to understand cultural differences.
This sub addresses that often debated topic: paying for a bride or groom.
But first, some definitions.
A dowry is a monetary amount paid to a groom (or groom’s family). Bride Price is paid to the bride’s family. (There’s a third thing called a dower which is paid to the bride herself by the groom, but that will not be discussed here).
So the famous sin sot of Thailand is NOT a dowry, but is a Bride Price.
Now, why is it that in some cultures the groom’s family pays, while in others the bride’s family?
It turns out, there are a number of reasons.
Probably the most important is the ratio of available men to women. Why wouldn’t that always be equal, you may ask?
In many societies, there are less available women than men. Take China, for example. Years of the one child policy and the resulting infanticide has now created a society with many more men than woman, 20% more by some estimates. With less women available they are more free to choose the better partner, and simple economics tells us that as supply goes down and demand goes up, the price of the product in demand rises. Bride Price is very common today in China with prices ranging from $1000 to $100,000 with cars and houses also often demanded (and received).
Societies that practice polygamy also have less available women (since one man is taking multiple wives). In Muslim countries the bride price is called mahr and this is practiced today in Asia in Muslim Myanmar and India, among other places.
Oceania (Papua New Guinea, for example), Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Afghanistan among others) also currently have Bride Price as do many parts of Sub Saharan Africa.
Of course, Thailand also has a Bride Price due to longstanding acceptance of polygamy. (See my article “Polygamy in Thailand” https://www.stickmanbangkok.comreaders-submissions/2019/03/polygamy-in-thailand/).
Bride Price goes back a long way historically and is mentioned several times in the bible. In traditional Jewish weddings from thousands of years ago to this day, the groom would give the bride an item of value, such as a wedding ring, to satisfy the requirement of making a payment to the bride. This custom of course continues to this day and has been adopted by non-Jewish cultures.
By the way, Bride Pride is usually paid in a non-monetary currency so that it does not communicate the purchase of a woman.
In addition to the issue of number of available men vs women, another reason societies offer Bride Prices instead of Dowries is when manual labor is more valuable than capital. In manual labor intensive societies the woman has large value as labor, while in capital intense cultures she is less needed. So, in societies with a lot of land and little capital, Africa and Asia for example, Bride Price dominates, but in Middle Age Europe Dowries were more common.
Similarly, in places where agriculture required teamwork (rice growing) women were valuable, whereas when agriculture required brute strength such as plowing or hunting, men were more valuable. (Wheat People Rice People indeed).
If you re-read the WEIRD people sub you will see how monogamy changed things for Western Europe. Plough agriculture is associated with private property and thus monogamy, hence Dowries, while in shared cultivation agriculture (rice) societies property tends to be communal and polygamy practiced, hence Bride Price.
Dowries were historically practiced in Europe- Greece and in the Roman Empire- down until the modern era. Did you know that the children’s tale “Cinderella” was originally about dowries, as the father of the three girls didn’t have enough money to provide suitable dowries for all three? That is why he rejected his step-daughter Cinderella in order to have dowries for the other two.
Providing dowries for the poor was long considered a form of charity. St Nicholas put gold in the stockings of three poor sisters for their dowries, starting a Christmas practice that continues to this day (over fireplaces).
The most important dowry ever may have been that given by the King of Portugal when his daughter, Catherine of Braganza, married Charles ll of England in 1661. The King gave several cities and 7 small islands in the Arabian Sea. These islands, vis landfill, were eventually merged into one land mass which became the city of Bombay, and was the foothold that the British used to begin their Indian Empire.
Dowries were common in England, having been introduced by the Normans. Shakespeare makes multiple references to dowries but the practice died out in the 1800’s when women were allowed to fully inherit.
In the America’s dowries were common in Mexico (the custom being brought from Spain) and in those areas settled by the French since the French government gave dowries to women willing to move to Quebec.
In the US, many Americans will remember the story of John Rolfe and Pocahontas–their marriage included a large dowry of land. The Master of the Mint in Boston in the 1600’s gave a dowry for his daughter by putting her on a scale and paying her weight in shillings.
In current times, the practice of giving a dowry is still practiced in India, Iran, Turkey and multiple other countries in Central and South Asia, and countries such as Serbia and Bosnia in Central Europe.
Both dories as well as bride prices have existed throughout the world for thousands of years, and continue today in many regions globally. Whether or not you, today, decide to pay a Bride Price or Dowry is totally up to you but, if you do, you can rest assured that you are continuing a long and ancient tradition.
Take care and stay safe.