Tackling issues of gender at times demands revisiting some of the time-honoured practices most of whose underlying principles were, once upon a time, viable and meaningful yet now have melted away leaving such practices baseless, if not completely irrational, in modern society. Most of them remain mere tools of oppression. Here is a testimony. “There has been a rise in the materialistic way of life across India and dowry demands have risen to become more extravagant in line with these Materialistic needs….It is one thing to give and take dowry. But what is really obnoxious is the torture women undergo because the dowry is less than expected.” It means some practices may survive out of popularity or as sheer tradition or for gain, while they remain void of meaning. Payment of bride price could be just one of those practices.
Bride price can be discriminatory
Although, it is a gain to the bride’s family, we cannot however ignore the discriminatory connotation against a woman vis-à-vis a man. It means those practices might as well be vehicles through which the discrimination against women is perpetuated through generations. This is reason enough to reconsider them and not simply settle at: it is our tradition! Yes, it is your tradition, but whatever your tradition is, it is not a gospel truth. It is not perfect. It needs purification. In fact, no one of our forefathers thought of establishing tradition for later generations rather they did their best to adopt a way of doing things as a response to their time, place, and understanding. And all these factors change. This is not to be understood in terms of relativism but a simple acknowledgement that while there are things that last there are also many things that change, and ought to change.
Why not change?
So, we cannot make any pretence about it. We cannot raise what is changeable to the level of infiniteness. What we call tradition often are modalities of expression of concepts or truths. We are obliged to keep the truth, we may cherish a concept if it passes the test of today’s advance in knowledge but we should be free to adopt our own way of expressing such truth and concepts using our own resources of our time and place. We may keep a tradition, observe it as a guide of life, if it still speaks to what we want to say; if it is good, that is, if it expresses the message not contrary to what we know as true. It is in this sense we can soberly approach tradition. Otherwise, the silliest thing can be that you hold on to a practice that expresses what you know is false or simply does not work as the tradition purports. Unfortunately it happens.
This is a kind of approach we took when we looked at the question of the bride price in order to be conscious of its place, if at all it has, in the marriages of today. Bride price: is it a practice that is realistic today or has it outlived its usefulness?
Bride price, not business transaction?
Bride price, to explain literally, is the payment made to the family of the girl by the family of the man marrying her. Is this not buying? Whatever it is, this is nonetheless a process of trade; sell and buy. What do you pay for in a woman that you do not pay for in a man? I’m convinced this is not a stupid question. Do you really pay for something and not in some way become its owner? The question of bride price, no matter how best one can try to explain or give sense to it –outside the olden times – remains an ambiguous affair to many people today, especially the young. Perhaps, this is already a sign of the need for some adaptation, to say the least. Why should it be paid, in the first place?
Can you believe this?
People give a lot of answers. Not wrong answers, but really not part of the traditional ones on which this practice should be founded. Yes, it struggles to find its place today. The many things that are said why this payment is made include: for the upbringing of the girl, for her virginity, for the children she bears for the man, as compensation since she is taken away from her family…, so the list goes on. Yet, all these hardly give a satisfactory answer other than beg more questions.
Where is that man who has been brought up at no cost of any kind exactly like a girl? But then what makes the upbringing of a girl special?
Virginity! Why should only women be required to be “virgins” and not men too? Is virginity the only thing of wealth a girl can keep and finally bring to her man and if she has lost it she is a finished good? Is she? Even then, that is nothing. The question is how many men have been obliged to pay, and are still paying, millions of kwacha for virginity of girls who have no notion whatsoever what that animal called virginity is?
Yes, our daughter has been to secondary school and to college –a lot has been spent on her, some parents would say. This is to imply that she has therefore become more expensive than her rural friend who works in a cassava field. Yet, given the general situation of women in Zambia today, the man who wants to marry that woman is often of a superior education and job. In that case, is he not, if you we can spare time for such simplistic reasoning, more expensive than your daughter?
Strange logic of human reproduction
Other parents would demand that a man pay bride price since their daughter is going to bear children for him, irrespective of the fact that they are in the matrilineal family set up where children trace lineage from the mother’s side, in case of the Bemba for instance. Yet, some people will still speak of a woman bearing children for a man. Hence, you pay for fertility. Then, you get the impression that bearing children appears to be solely a woman’s job and a man has nothing to do with it. I’m not really up to date with such “virginal conception” that appears to be implied here. In this manner man’s fertility is ignored, or is so insignificant that it is not worth paying for. But then if a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock – the all burden is on a man. He is responsible, he has made the girl pregnant. I would think the two are responsible for the pregnancy.
Linked to fertility is also this notion of leaving. Our daughter will be taken away from our family to come and look after your home. But where is that married man who in a normal marriage set-up does not leave his own family in order to make a new family with his wife and children? Why should the woman’s leaving be so pronounced?
How was it practised in the past?
In the past, items like axes, hoes, and ornaments were demanded as bride price among the Bemba. Though these may appear cheap with the availability of metal today it might not have been that easy to acquire them in those days. One had to depend on a blacksmith. Because marriage is a social institution, and was made out of an alliance of friendship between two families, what was asked for was merely symbolic. By no means could there be any exaggeration since the initiative of marriage came from the agreement and mutual appreciation of the two families. Hence, that bride price could not be left to block the union of the two families.
Some other ethnic groups especially pastoralists paid cows or goats. The understanding was that the payment legitimized the union and the children born out of it. And that gave authority to the man over his wife and children. In the patrilineal family setup, a woman was perceived as going to perpetuate her husband’s lineage. Hence, the girl’s family was to be somewhat compensated. The payment was also a test of the man’s seriousness and ability to look after his wife; it was a check on his commitment, some people would say.
Practice devoid of its cultural meaning
But what is surprising is that this practice of bride price continues even when those cultural bases may mean nothing to the people today. For young people, marriage is not just a social function in the sense of uniting their two families. The focus is the love between a boy and a girl who want to spend their life together. So, consequently, their two families too are brought into some relationship. Hence, love, attraction to each other and the desire to live together are coming first. It is not so much the case that a man looks at children as his alone, and the wife has nothing to do with them apart from giving birth to them. Here is something positive we can acknowledge especially in the Zambian urban society that there is more and more a shared responsibility in the relationship and friendship of couples who want to spend their lives together despite other problems that may be surrounding their marriage.
Many are growing in this spirit of making decisions about the affairs of their home, on the size of the family and both man and woman have equal sense of ownership of children. Neither is bearing children for the other nor the other’s family. Whether patrilineal or matrilineal that counts little; the decision concerning children lies heavily on the couple themselves. There is hardly a man playing a role of hired bull or a woman as mere mould. Hence, no one should receive rental for reproducing for the other.
With this, you wonder the reason for lobola –a man paying an amount in order to own and have access to his own children. But whether he pays or not the children are his anyway, and they will know him as their father. In fact, this is a custom that disadvantages the woman further. A man who has paid lobola will feel entitled to gather all the children to himself in case of divorce since he paid the “labourer”, the woman, who gave them birth. He has somewhat paid the ransom; redeeming his children. In this way, the woman is reduced to an object of reproduction.
She’s no one’s property
To comment on the view that justifies bride price as compensation for the woman taken away from the family, a woman remains always a member of her own family despite going out to found her own home with her husband, who also has to leave his family. In fact, a man receives the in-laws: brothers in-law, sisters in-law; not to mention his anxiety to do something special for his father and mother in-law. About the popular complaint, the woman wants only her relatives in the home and not the husband’s; it is a generalization that is not always true –but true in some cases nevertheless. Then, what other compensation does the woman’s family want to claim after all?
What is hard to believe is the extent to which this custom of bride price has fallen captive to capitalistic mentality. When you hear the amount demanded by the girl’s family it leaves no doubt, the man, even if he is not buying the woman to be his wife, at least, he is being loaned with full rights. A good number of modern girls are sensitive to this kind of “selling” and they are actually reacting against it.
Some young people react
For many young people elopement is one solution to this superfluous custom that transparently has outlived its relevance. They run away and get married leaving the parents with the custom. This is especially true when a girl who loves her man realises the inflated price or other cultural complications are likely to block or delay unnecessarily their marriage. At times also, parents are surprised by the pregnancy of their daughter so that they have no choice. They are the ones now to precipitate. They do not want to let the man go and leave their daughter reduced to the category of second hand goods. They rush to arrange something to save face and redeem the situation. If a man agrees to marry the daughter the price is often even reduced –it is like bargaining at the cattle market. In fact, they may even proceed with the marriage with the agreement that the payment will be done later. To say the truth, there are many marriages, happy marriages, where such payment has hardly been paid. They are no less marriages. Even the parents of the couple do not regret it at all.
Sharing the cost is another solution of the young people today. A girl working and earning a good salary will not mind to contribute money for the bride price especially if she does not want to lose the man. She will be on his side to encourage him. With all this, what remains of the show of commitment, payment for fertility, and as compensation that everyone wants to use religiously just to make some money on their daughter?
The fact that young people are fed up with this and want to do it in their own way makes it all seem ridiculous; everything crumbles without their parents realizing. It is a mockery. This is not to endorse whatever the youth do as being correct, but only to acknowledge that they also express and act against some serious concerns that deserve some consideration. Indeed, this is a sign that something has to be worked on regarding this custom. The time has changed and certain conceptions have improved the understanding of marriage, most importantly, the place of the two partners in the relationship.
Example: empty virginity talk
Today we talk of umwanakashi wa cisungu (virgin), for the Bemba, just to mean someone who has not yet given birth but not a virgin in the true sense of what the word used to mean. And yet a man marrying such a woman is expected to pay ulupiya lwacisungu (payment for virginity). It is quite unlikely that there is a man, certainly not a realistic man, going round expecting to find a virgin to marry. This is not pessimism but simply facing facts on the ground. Actually, today young people intending to marry even share about their past relationships in which it becomes clear their future spouse is not a virgin. And even if they do not share this, they are all the same likely to know the truth. Virginity is a very unlikely expectation.
Yet, how sheepishly do we submit to customs that only presuppose things that we know never exist at all? Besides, why should only a girl be required to be virgin? Why all this? No need to wonder.
Need for mental deconstruction
We are fixated in all that because of the gender bias in the organisation of our society in which our way of thinking, acting and relating has been trapped. The bride price may give only a false sense of value to a girl –that is why she is paid for –but actually, it exerts the air of being sold and bought. Even in cultures where it is a woman to pay the man –it is still the woman who suffers the consequent degradation.
Many women in the Indian cultures have plenty of stories with such testimony. Girl’s parents have to sweat to find money or assets valuable enough to attract a man to marry their daughter. And the girl is harassed by in-laws if her family is too poor to give a good sum. She is condemned to endure whatever lot is inflicted on her since married state is the only life for a woman or she would disgrace her parents. That results in suicides (dowry deaths) when she can bear it no longer. In 1987 there were 792 dowry deaths with 922 in 1988 according to official records. In 2005 more than 7 000 women died in India in the same way. A report in the International Herald Tribune of a case in New Delhi adds not just another story but also recent voice to the same women’s predicament.
“A new television and sofa were conspicuously displayed in the same room, so that every member of the party could see what was being offered from the bride’s family to the groom as a dowry. A full list of all the other items was copied out by hand and handed to five witnesses – itemizing all the pieces of furniture, kitchen equipment and jewellery that would be delivered in payment.
Unfortunately for Kamlesh, the 18-year-old bride…the payment from her father, Misrilal, was insufficient. Her new husband had expected a scooter; his parents had wanted more than the 51,000 rupees – about $1,100 – that they got. During three years of marriage, the requests for an extended dowry settlement began to be accompanied by worsening bouts of violence… he beat her over the head with a wooden stick, tied her up and locked her in the cow shed as she bled profusely….
An average of one dowry death is reported every 77 minutes according to the National Crime Record Bureau and victim support groups say complaints of dowry harassment are rising, fuelled by a rising climate of consumerism.
‘Everyone is becoming more and more westernized – they want expensive clothes, they want the consumer objects which are constantly advertised on television. A dowry is seen as an easy way to get them,’ said Varsha Jha, an official with the Delhi Commission for Women.
Although the giving and taking of dowry is banned here under legislation that threatens a five-year jail term, activists describe the law as ‘ornamental’ and point out that it is almost never imposed. Dowry negotiations remain an integral part of wedding arrangements, although, to avoid legal complications, the payments are often referred to as wedding gifts”.
It is evident from such experiences, and many others, that bride price is but just another point for gender issue. Hence, it is another field to walk and fight against discrimination. Resistance will be there just like in other areas from those who benefit from it, especially men who control or women who still feel valued by it or by those to whom the custom is a matter of eternal law. More importantly, it may be difficult for some women to see things differently as they are prisoners of the gender biased frame of thought. We discern easily how discriminatory this custom is by identifying the evils that are as a result of this practice.
Girls reduced to fragile objects
Girls are reduced to fragile objects to be handled with care because in case of any crack they lose something of their inherent value. Families are edgy about them. Hence, dispose of them quickly or they get damaged in their hands, to their loss. We know that second hand material does not fetch a good price, if anything at all.
However what is funny is that in towns where there are many marriages of couples from different cultural setups you end up paying even for those with children already. The argument, of course as mere pretext, is always that it is like that in our culture. For the Bemba when talking of marrying a woman with a child or who was one time married, they speak of wakutola, from the infinitive: ukutola which means to pick, as you would do for a fruit fallen from the tree lying on the ground. A second-hand woman is uwakutola (an object just picked) found with no one claiming ownership.
In the same language, they would say tamwaba bene there is no owner; to mean she is not married –you can pick her, you can enter, you can marry her. You can see how a woman is not only portrayed as an object but also the loss of value she must suffer after the break-up of her first marriage. She somehow becomes a cheap object to possess. Yet, people inside this culture, both men and women, will use these words without any consciousness whatsoever of their degrading connotation. In fact, that makes it difficult for people to appreciate something is not correct and thus, they hardly see the need for change.
How is bride price a gender issue?
Bride price is a matter of gender issue as it plays very much on the position of a woman in marriage, on the relationship between husband and wife. Having paid money, a man has a sense of ownership, as master over a woman instead of relationship of friends who are equal. It is somewhat a “title deed” he acquires. The money he has paid makes him feel it is his duty to discipline the members of his family –wife included in the way he likes. In Papua New Guinea the payment of bride price legitimized even man’s force over the wife.
Because of this sense of ownership, when a married woman is raped –it is the husband who will demand compensation; the rape is an attack not on the woman but the owner. It is a pity that some women will even respond to this custom in a way that empowers a man to do with them as he wants just because he paid for them; Wilanguma, finshi wapela batata (don’t beat me, what have you given to my father?). It implies, she would somehow submit to the abuse because he has paid, and it means she will only react if he has not paid full price and therefore he does not have the full right.
The bride price was shared by many members of the family, although much less today, and while they were interested in the well being of the marriage, often family members encouraged the girl to go on enduring even when such a marriage had no life giving or happiness left. This is because if a woman moved away from the marriage then the money paid would have to be returned, something those who shared the money would not like to see happen. Here the focus of marriage is well displaced. Bride price becomes the fibre of marriage. Even in the traditional conception: alliance, fertility, legitimacy are the cords that bind the marriage; there is nothing of relationship of love that the young might be looking for.
Another thing to revisit
There are other things concerning girls that require reflection and reconsideration. The case of pregnancy outside marriage is one. We speak of damages. What damages? It is not one person’s affair; it takes two persons –a boy and a girl. Owing to the passive position attributed to a girl, even if she may not always be that passive in such a relationship, the whole burden is shouldered by the boy who is forced to pay. But who does not know of the many cases where, in reality, a girl is the initiator?
She is the one taking herself to a man because she wants him. She wants to have a child with him or she wants to get married to him. In case of rape, one can understand it differently; but the pregnancy that results from some relationship needs some pause and thought. We cannot afford going on living unreflectively, mechanically as if we are prisoners of the way things have been. Indeed, it is an insult to our intelligence considering the resources available before us today in terms of knowledge and understanding of things.
Bride price is, intentionally or not, a tool, a vehicle of discrimination and oppression against women. It must be an area of interest for those addressing issues of gender. Look again at this Chinese proverb: A wife married, is like a pony bought, I’ll ride her and whip her as I like. Is that the way we want to proceed with marriage?
See previous posts:
 International Herald Tribune online, 22 October 2006.
Cf Sakuntala Narasimhan, “India: From Sati to Sex-Determination Tests”, in Miranda, Women and Violence, p. 45.
 International Herald Tribune online, 22 October, 2006.