Monthly Archives: October 2015

the price of a woman

We need to differentiate  dowry and bride-price because these two words are often taken to mean the same thing in Kenya sort of like step and half siblings.

Dowry is property or money brought by a wife to her husband on the day of their marriage. It is a gift from the family of the bride to the new family. A way of allowing them to begin their lives with an adrenaline shot of financial aid. It is in fact a sort of “prodigal” inheritance by which the daughter of a family is given some of her parent’s wealth during their lifetime.

Bride-price is the  complete opposite of this. It is money or property given to the family of the intended wife (usually and most substantially the male side of that family) by the intended groom. The function of bride-price was to compensate the family of the bride for loss of her labour (it has been found to be common in societies where women did the bulk of the work) and her fertility (many cultures that practice this consider the woman thereafter lost forever. Her children belong to her husband and his family, when she dies she is buried according to her husband’s customs.)

I have almost zero firsthand knowledge of dowry. I’ve read about it.  The book I am currently reading War and Peace has sections with a lot of the male characters acting like gold diggers. Egged on by their mothers and their fathers and their family’s circumstances they try to make a good match which involves a substantial dowry. There is in fact a character in love with a girl who brings no dowry and feels as if he is betraying his family if he marries her instead of looking for a wealthy heiress. This thought is actually a selfless thought, not one that he is judged for by society but one that society revels in. Another lady gets a huge inheritance and is suddenly overwhelmed by suitors. This is probably common but the acceptance of it; the expectance of acting according to these rules is jarring to say the least. Dowry as a concept and practice probably has as many problems as bride-price but even when I read about them they feel strange, alien and foreign. This practice is still the norm in many parts of India, North Africa and the Balkans.

Bride-price though is something I know first-hand. I have watched it happen, I have been to many of these ceremonies, I have heard men lament the money they lose to this practice, I have heard women protect it vehemently. I have thought about it and I think it is wrong.

I don’t want to pay bride-price for the simple reason that we should not be putting prices on human beings. What does it say to fight for female emancipation and equality and then turn around and endorse a practice that says a woman is a good transferred from her father to her husband? Giving up one name to take up another. Having her entire identity defined by the men she is associated with? The fact that this happens upon an exchange of money only underlines the fact that both parties seem to look at it as some kind of commercial transaction. There are negotiations, there are fund-raisings, there are more negotiations, there is anger in the negotiations and laughter, and there is an impasse that is reached and passed.  It is so similar to the buying of a good that I can’t begin to look at it as anything other than that.

But, it is not the price of the woman; it is appreciation to her parents for raising her is one argument for it. This is shown by the way they talk about her academic and other achievements. This bothers me though. Men are raised by parents too. Men have academic and other achievements. It is just as hard to raise a good man as it is to raise a good woman. Where is the appreciation for the parents of the man for raising someone worthy of this woman? How can appreciation only flow one way? Doesn’t it speak to a special burden in raising girls?

As if it is so difficult and thankless to raise a girl that compensation for the troubles borne must be insisted upon. “100 shillings for every cup she broke as we brought her up.” There is something in this practice that strikes me as sinister. Parents love their sons so much that all the heartache and trouble, all the pain and shit that goes into raising them is fine. They do not need thanking for it; it was their duty and their pleasure. Their little boy, now a man is their joy and love. But, raising the girl was trouble, real trouble. She broke cups! Pay for that. She wanted an education!! Pay more for that. She turned out a woman of great beauty and good character, a soul so gentle that it brings joy by its very presence!!! Pay for that because the reward of raising such an amazing human being is not enough in itself. Like a prize calf we also need financial consideration. The men are valuable enough for being themselves but the women need some financial gain otherwise it was all a waste. Not all a waste but we would really rather get some money.

There really is something insidious with the practice. There is another justification I have heard. That nobody appreciates something that he has not worked for. This is another argument that reduces people to the level of things. The more money you spend on it the more you value it. It is an argument that assumes that the only value a man can assign to a woman arises out of the money he has spent on her. That a woman could not be valued for who she is: her intelligence, her character, her humour, her little crooked tooth without also considering that there is a material aspect to her. A woman is not a car and her worth in the eyes of her husband should not be determined by how much the husband paid to the father for her. Applying this reasoning he will value his house infinitely more than he values his wife.

There is one argument for the dowry process that I can’t argue against. That the whole point is to bring two families together. To better bind two people. That’s a beautiful sentiment. Strangers are pledging all they owe in the world to each other. They should meet where each of them came from. Their homes should be friends. Their houses should stand together. Their roofs should be one.

A friend of mine wondered once how he would look at his father in law if the dowry was exorbitant “every time I saw him I’d think that guy is the reason I took out a bank loan.” This does not bring families together in any way.

Insist on the procedures without the price and look at harmony begin to grow. Allow this man to hold on to the money and use it to help your daughter build a future for the two of them rather than give it to you for doing what was your responsibility as a parent. A labour of love is its own reward.

There is an argument that it is tradition. There was a lot in those traditional marriages that are repugnant to modern moral sensibilities. Tradition cannot be held onto purely for its own sake. Once we rid ourselves of the traditions that physically harm people we need to set our sights on the ones that spread subliminal messages. We need to get rid of the ones that bring about financial strain without reason. We need to turn around the ones that scream that men and women are different. That a girl needs to do more than just be in order to be the best thing that ever happened to her parents.

Bride-price should be scrapped.

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