In societies where the parents negotiate marriage arrangements for their children, there is usually a system of marriage payments that is designed to redistribute wealth.
This is because the marriage is not only considered as a new relationship between the two people who are getting married, but rather as an alliance between their families or kinship groups.
Therefore, the marriage negotiations include discussions regarding contractual and economic considerations which are strongly influenced by the economic modes of production, the resulting relations of production and the possibility of wealth accumulation in the society in question.
Marriage payments fall under one of two broad categories.
When the bulk of the marriage payments pass from the groom’s family to the bride’s family the payment is known as Brideprice or Bridewealth.
When the bulk of the payments flow in the opposite direction, from the bride’s family to the groom’s kin then it is known as Dowry (Anderson 2007).
Where are dowry and bridewealth customs most common?
Bridewealth is by far the most common practice worldwide and is found in circa two thirds of the preindustrial societies listed in Murdock’s 1967 World Ethnographic Atlas, as opposed to dowry which only occurs in around 4% of those societies (Anderson 2007).
However, this does not give an accurate picture of the impact and reach of dowry customs, because many of the societies that practiced this type of marriage payment custom were in Europe and Asia, where the population was around 70% of the world population at the time (Anderson 2007).
The evolution of marriage payment practices
The societies that use bridewealth tend to be less complex, with less socioeconomic stratification than those that use dowries. In fact, in several societies it is possible to trace the changes in marriage payment customs as the society developed and became more urbanized and less homogenous.
A good historical example can be seen in the case of the Hebrews, who slowly shifted from a custom of bridewealth, where the bride’s parents receive the payment from the groom’s family, to an interim stage referred to as dower, where the groom’s family are still the source of the marriage payments but the recipient is the bride, to dowry, where the bride’s parents make the payments and the bride is the recipient.
This shift in marriage payment customs occurred over the period when the Hebrews stopped living as pastoral nomads and settled in Canaan, where social stratification and wealth accumulation were able to develop (Anderson 2007).
The same differentiation between bridewealth and dowry can be seen in the contemporary world. This becomes evident when one compares the dowry practices of highly stratified societies such as India with the bridewealth customs of relatively homogenous societies such as the Zulus in Southern Africa (ilobolo) (Rudwick, Posel 2015).
India is in fact also an excellent contemporary example of the evolution of marriage payment customs, since nowadays Indian society has moved towards what can better be described as groomprice rather than dowry, because the payments made by the wife’s family go to the groom and his kin and not to the bride (Anderson 2007).
The table below lists the main variants of marriage payment systems, highlighting their most common characteristics.
|Bridewealth or Brideprice
|Payment made by the groom or his family. The marriage payment becomes the property of the bride’s family, as compensation for the bride’s productive and reproductive capacity. In some cases, after the bridewealth is paid to the bride’s family, the father takes a portion of it and transfers the remainder to the bride as her dowry (Goody 1973). If the society is one where wealth accumulation is difficult, the groom might instead offer brideservice, committing himself to work for the bride’s family for a specified period of time (Anderson 2007).
|Payment made by the groom’s family. An interim arrangement that comes into being as societies become more stratified and the shift from bridewealth to dowry is under way (Anderson 2007). The recipient is the bride, for whom the payment is insurance in case her husband dies or divorces her. This practice is also known as a “reverse dowry” (Anderson 2007).
|Payment made by the wife’s family. The marriage payment becomes the property of the bride, in what is effectively a pre-mortem inheritance. However, the main aim of a dowry differs from that of an inheritance, since the goal is to forge an alliance with the best family the bride’s kin can afford (Goody 1973)
|Payment made by the wife’s family. The marriage payment does not go to the bride, but instead goes to the groom and his kin (Anderson 2007).
The value of a woman in society
A very important differentiator between societies that make bridewealth payments vs those that have dowry customs is the importance given to the contribution of the woman to the family.
In foraging and horticultural societies (where light tools such as the hoe are used) women make a significant contribution to the survival of their family and tribe. This means that losing a woman is perceived as a loss in productive and reproductive capacity, and hence these societies usually have a bridewealth custom to compensate the family of birth of the woman (Eller 2016).
In societies where the means of production is pastoralism or heavy agriculture, on the other hand, the balance shifts. Pastoralist societies tend to be aggressive, with men fighting for control of pastures and water as well as to protect their herds or steal cattle from other tribes. This division of labour results in women being perceived as only contributing minimally to the survival of the group.
The same applies to societies where they use intensive agriculture to maximize yields from the land, where men are the ones who do the hard labour and who protect the farms and accumulated wealth from attack, while women work in the home and tend animals, which is not highly valued. In such situations, where women are not seen to contribute to the family in an important way, the marriage payments are made by the bride’s family, as they vie to secure an alliance with the wealthiest or best-connected man possible (Anderson 2007).
So far we have looked at the underlying reasons for the payment of bridewealth or dowry. This essay will now look at the main differences between the two customs, and also give examples based on ethnographies.
The main differences between Bridewealth and Dowry payments are as follows:
The quantum of the payment
The value of the bridewealth payment tends to be uniform throughout a society, and not related to the wealth of the families in question. The quantum of the dowry payment, on the other hand, can vary dramatically and is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, depending on the wealth of the bride’s father and the prospects of the husband-to-be (Anderson 2007).
The value of bridewealth payments in general has not escalated dramatically over time and no legal interventions were required to control them. Dowries, on the other hand, have often escalated out of control, and in some societies such as India, laws had to be enacted to control them (Anderson 2007).
Monogamy, Polygamy and Divorce
In societies where bridewealth is the custom, men often take more than one wife and divorce is common, because there is no financial penalty for the groom if he divorces a wife. In some cases, divorce means the bridewealth is returned to the groom’s kin, so this could act as an incentive to divorce, particularly in cases where the woman has not borne any children. That said this practice is slowly changing.
“Childbearing has not lost its significance in Zulu society, but ilobolo payments are no longer expected to be returned in the event of infertility as was the case in the past”Rudwick, Posel 2015
In societies where dowry is paid, men marry one woman and divorce is uncommon, for two reasons. The first is that divorce always involves returning the dowry payment, something that the groom’s family would want to avoid at all costs (Goody 1973). The second is that divorce is usually a big taboo in these societies, so the bride’s family also have considerable incentive to stop it from happening, even in cases where their daughter is being victimized (Bloch, Rao 2002 p. 1030).
The beneficiaries of the dowry and bridewealth payments
It is also worth noting that it is often the case that the bridewealth transaction is very important for the bride’s brothers, because the assets received by the bride’s family are needed to finance their own marriage. The assets thus circulate within the society from family to family as offspring are married off, which is why Goody defines bridewealth payments as contributions to a societal fund.
“We have seen that bridewealth passes from the kin of the groom to those of the bride; it forms a societal fund, a circulating pool of resources, the movement of which correspond to the movement of rights over spouses, usually women”Goody 1973
Dowry payments, on the other hand, do not circulate in society but stay within the family, thus forming a familial fund –
“… dowry is part of a familial or conjugal fund, which passes down from holder to heir, and usually from the parents to the daughter. It is thus part and parcel of the transfer of familial property, but a process of transfer that includes women as well as men; that is, male property is transmitted to women as full heirs, semi-heirs or residual heirs”Goody 1973
What are the main goals of bridewealth vs dowry?
The main goals of bridewealth and dowry differ.
In the case of bridewealth, the forging of alliances is a factor, but not necessarily the most important one – “it is generally viewed as a means to cement relationships between social groups and to transfer women’s productive and reproductive capacities from their family to their husband’s family” (Servy 2020).
In many cases the payment of the bridewealth marks the shift of the bride and her offspring from the line of descent of the ancestors of her family of birth to the one of her husband’s kin.
“According to my interlocutors from Seaside Tongoa, the main purpose of the practice of bridewealth that takes place during the customary marriage is to separate the bride and her children from their former nakamal and to affiliate them with the groom’s group (the primary principle of filiation is patrilineal). My interlocutors talk about the ʻdepartureʼ of the woman from her native group and her integration with her husband’s group”Rudwick, Posel 2015 p. 295
In the case of dowry, on the other hand, the main aim is to create a connection with the best family and most desirable groom possible.
The geographical distribution of dowry and bridewealth
The geographical distribution of marriage payment practices is as follows. Dowry tended to be the norm in Europe, Asia and Islamic countries. Bridewealth tends to the custom in sub-Saharan Africa.
In order to illustrate the abovementioned differences, I will be referring to ethnographies addressing Zulu and Indian marriage payment customs.
Ethnography: The Zulu Tribes of South Africa
The Zulu tribes of South Africa have a system of bridewealth marriage payments that are called ilobolo.
As is the norm with this type of marriage prestations, the payment’s primary aim is to compensate the bride’s family for losing the woman’s output, both in the form of labour and in relation to any children that she may bear (Anderson 2007).
Hence one can see this as a straightforward transaction – “ownership” and “responsibility” of the daughter and her reproductive capacity is transferred from her family of birth to the groom’s kin and assets are transferred as repayment from the groom’s kin to the bride’s family.
This is the main function of ilobolo, but it is not the only one.
The exchange builds an obligation of reciprocity between the two families and is seen to increase the stability of the marriage, because if the bride returns to her family then the ilobolo has to be returned as well.
The ilobolu payment is seen as an extremely important transaction that bestows inhlonipho (respect) onto the woman, since it acts as social proof of her worth, both to her natal family and the family of the groom (Rudwick, Posel 2015).
“… a woman who is not lobola’d does not have inhlonipho.”Rudwick, Posel 2015 p. 293
“… as a Zulu […] sometimes you don’t treat a woman with respect if you did not pay for her [ilobolo].”Rudwick, Posel 2015 p. 294
In the second half of the twentieth century the marriage rate amongst Zulus in South Africa declined dramatically – in 2008 statistics showed that less than one third of adults was married or had ever been married (Rudwick, Posel 2015).
This phenomenon appears to be linked to two factors.
The first is the high value of ilobolo, which currently stands at circa one full year’s salary, making it prohibitively expensive for Zulu men who do not receive financial support from their kin.
The second is that educated and employed Zulu women are opting not to get married in order to retain control over their life and their reproductive decisions.
However, ilobolu remains of primary importance in Zulu society and the self-worth of Zulu women (Rudwick, Posel 2015).
Ethnography: Dowry in India
In India getting a daughter married is considered one of her parents’ most important responsibilities.
In an ethnography conducted in a community of pottery makers in the South Indian State of Karnataka, the researchers found that the marriage market is very restricted – matches must be made within the same subcaste (endogamous) and if a family has an older daughter who is unmarried, this is considered to be a big source of shame within the family (Bloch, Rao 2002).
The result of this social pressure, of course, is that families with daughters are desperate to find them a partner, so any available grooms have considerable leverage when it comes to negotiating dowries.
“Dowries among the potters average six times the annual income of a bride’s parents, an amount that is consistent with findings from other samples”Bloch, Rao 2002 p. 1030
The cost of getting one or more daughters married can be crippling – a fact which has led to the widespread practice in India of aborting female foetuses and trying again to beget a male child.
Once married, the bride moves to live with the groom’s kin.
Divorce is not an option, both because the groom’s family would not want to return the dowry and because of serious social sanctions if the woman returns to her family.
Unfortunately, this means that the leverage that the groom had when negotiating the dowry does not dissipate after the marriage, and in many cases the husband and his kin keep asking for additional payments even after having tied the knot.
This has led to a situation where the wife sometimes becomes a hostage, with her family having to pay increasing amounts of money in order to keep her safe – “domestic violence is an instrument used by the husband in the wider context of bargaining between the husband’s and wife’s families over the distribution of their resources” (Bloch, Rao 2002 p. 1031).
In some cases, the violence escalates to the point that the wife loses her life, in what the Indian press have dubbed “dowry deaths.” These negotiating tactics have become so common that families factor it into their dowry negotiations, with the bride’s family reserving a fund for post-marital negotiations, in the hope of satisfying the groom and his kin.
Final thoughts on the differences between dowry and bridewealth
In conclusion, this essay has shown that the raison d’etre for the existence of the marriage payments, and the underlying assumptions about the value of women differ considerably in societies where bridewealth payments are made upon marriage, as opposed to those where a dowry payment is the custom.
In addition the two customs have several different characteristics, all of with have different repercussions for young people of marriageable age, resulting in situations where men cannot get a bride or where families end up bankrupting themselves to get a daughter married and to keep her safe after marriage.
Anderson, S. (2007) “The Economics of Dowry and Brideprice.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21(4), pp. 151-174.
Bloch, F. and Rao, V. (2002) “Terror as a Bargaining Instrument: A Case Study of Dowry Violence in Rural India.” The American Economic Review, 92(4), pp. 1029-1043.
Eller, J.D (2016) Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives. 3rd edn. Routledge.
Goody, J. (1973) Bridewealth and dowry. Cambridge U.P.
Rudwick, S. and Posel, D. (2015) “Zulu bridewealth (ilobolo) and womanhood in South Africa.” Social dynamics, 41(2), pp. 289-306.
Servy, A. (2020) “‘We’ve Paid your Vagina to Make Children!ʼ: Bridewealth and Women’s Marital and Reproductive Autonomy in Port‐Vila, Vanuatu.” Oceania, 90(3), pp. 292-308.
Still, C. (2011) “Spoiled Brides and the Fear of Education: Honour and Social Mobility among Dalits in South India.” Modern Asian studies, 45(5), pp. 1119-1146.
For Further Reading
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