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Love for Sale: Dowries and Bride Prices

Updated on September 10, 2011

The Price Of A Bride

The customs involving dowries and bride prices date back to ancient times. They were referred to in many of our oldest written records, including the Code of Hammurabi from 1790 BC and the Old Testament of the Bible. We may think that dowries and bride prices are quaint relics of the past, but in fact they are very much in the news today. This is the history of these ancient marriage practices, and their troubling modern incarnations


Purpose Of A Dowry

A dowry was essentially a gift of money, goods, or land that a bride brought to her husband at marriage. There were several purposes to the establishment of the dowry. One was to help the husband with the expenses of his new family. The dowry was also intended as a form of life insurance for the bride and her children from the marriage; upon her husband's death she or their shared children would inherit the dowry that her family had paid to the groom. In addition, a dowry was supposed to offer a new wife some assurance that she would not be mistreated or divorced by her husband, as he would be required to return the dowry in those circumstances. Land and precious metals like gold were considered an especially useful part of a dowry, as the husband could not so easily spend them, and they were likely to still be in his possession in the event that the dowry had to be repaid.

Dowries And Politics

Dowries were also an important way of sealing the bond between two families, particularly wealthy or influential ones. They could be an integral part of both politics and nation-building, as well as allegiances between families. For example, the cities of Mumbai, India (Bombay) and Tangiers, Morrocco were given to the British by the Portuguese royal family in 1661 as a dowry when Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II. In the days when arranged marriages between the nobility were common, the dowry was one of the deciding factors.

St Nicholas And Dowries

St Nicholas Giving Dowry Gold  Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky
St Nicholas Giving Dowry Gold Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Many of us may be familiar with the concept of dowries through Shakespearean works like King Lear and Measure for Measure, but did you know that the legend of St. Nicholas also involved dowries? The story goes that St. Nicholas put gold coins in the stockings of a trio of poor sisters, which gave them the necessary dowries to get married. Where dowries were the standard practice, a woman could often not be wed without one, making them critically important. It also could make having daughters a financial burden, and sometimes religious charities and even governments would help to provide dowries for young women so they could be wed.

The Bride Price Is A Turn About For The Groom

The bride price or bride wealth is a payment that is given by the groom and his family to the bride's family. It is important to note that the bride price was usually paid to the bride's father or family, not to the bride herself. (Less common is the dower, which is a valuable gift like expensive jewelry that may also be worn as bridal jewelry given directly to the bride from the groom,-sometimes a piece of property is given.) There are several rationales behind the bride price. One is that it was to compensate the bride's family for the loss of her labor. Another reason to pay a bride price was to form a strong bond between the two families. Just as with the dowry, in some parts of the world (particularly Africa) the marriage was not official until the bride price was paid in full.

Virgins Can Be Expensive According To The Bible

Bride prices are referred to in the Bible. This is a passage from Exodus 22: 16 – 17, detailing one application of the bride price: "If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins." Sort of like the ancient version of a shotgun wedding.

Thailand Brides Can Cost $300,000

The cost of the bride price in Thailand, known as sin sot, is based on the desirability of the woman. Prices can be anywhere from nothing for a divorced or "loose" woman, to over $300,000 for a bride who is beautiful, educated, and from a prominent family. The Thai bride price generally consists of cash, gold, and a diamond ring, which are given to the bride's family at an engagement ceremony. The purpose of the bride price is to show the bride's parents that the groom has enough money to support a family; in some cases the bride's parents will end up returning much of the bride price to the young couple as a wedding gift.The diamond ring can always serve as a nice piece of wedding jewelry


Jewish Marriage Customs

In Jewish marriage customs, the bride price has evolved over time. The Ketubah is a marriage contract signed by the bride and groom, along with witnesses, in part to ensure that the bride is entering the marriage of her own free will. In the Ketubah, the traditional bride price was replaced with a sum of money that is promised to the bride in the event of divorce or the groom's death. There were several reasons for this. One is that it was often difficult for young men to raise the money needed for a bride price, and this change in the system allowed him to delay raising the funds. The other reason was to discourage a man from divorcing his wife, as it was going to be costly. This helped to protect wives and their children.

Many marriages included the exchange of both the bride price and a dowry. In these cases, the dowry was often the larger of the two. The Code of Hammurabi established that a widow's inheritance would be the dowry paid to the groom less the bride price he paid to her family. The dowry and the bride price could be anything from cash to livestock to gold to household goods. The sums involved depended on a variety of factors. In regions where young women were hard to find, bride prices could be very high, but sometimes the money or goods offered were more symbolic than valuable.


Origin Of The Bridal Shower

Even as the practice of formal dowries faded from use in the Western world by the late 19th to early 20th Centuries, young women were still expected to bring household goods to the marriage, in the form of a trousseau. Young ladies were educated in the arts of fine needlework, and spent much of their youth filling a hope chest with the linens that would one day fill their married home. The custom of the bridal shower, which is still very much a part of modern weddings, arose to help young women accumulate the necessary items to set up a new house after the wedding.


American and European brides probably believe that the dowry and bride price have disappeared from modern marriages, but this is not at all the case. The practice of exchanging dowries or bride prices is still very much alive in parts of the world including India, South Asia, China, and Africa. In these countries, the modern version of dowries and bride price payments have often mutated from their original intentions, and have become institutions that are causing abuse, oppression, and even death, primarily to women.

Dowries Banned I India In 1961 But .........

So many problems were associated with dowries in India that they were officially banned in 1961. Despite the ban, the practice flourishes today, to the detriment of many young women. There are an alarming number of brides who suffer mistreatment at the hands of their husbands as an effort to force her family to complete payment of a dowry or to give the groom an even larger dowry than was originally promised. Called the dahej, the dowry payment can be as much as six times what a family earns in a year, making them very difficult for a family to pay. The financial burden of providing a dowry has contributed to both abortions for the purpose of gender selection (illegal, but still common), as well as female infanticide.

Dowry Related Deaths Still Occur

Even worse, there has been a long-standing problem of dowry related deaths in India. These deaths take place when a bride is either murdered by her husband and his family, or when the bride commits suicide to escape the ongoing abuse and torment of a groom looking for a higher dowry. The exact numbers of dowry related deaths are hard to quantify, as the brides are often burned to death by her husband in so-called "kitchen fires".

Uganda Men Treat Wives As Property

It is not only dowries that are causing such misery. A recent case in Uganda has brought international attention and outrage to the abuse of brides due to the practice of bride prices. Photographs were published of a wife being forced to breastfeed her husband's puppies, because as he pointed out, he had to give his cows to her parents as her bride price. Furthermore, there is a prevailing attitude among Ugandan men that since they have paid a price for their wives, they are their property, to be treated in any way that they like. The recent news, reported by The Guardian newspaper of England among others, has sparked a movement to eliminate the custom of the bride price in Uganda.

Ten Year Old Girls Sold For Bride Price

Another major problem with the bride price in its modern form in many countries in Asia and Africa is that it is often seen as a way for poor families to raise money. Girls as young as 10 or 11 are sold by their fathers for the highest price they can command. The expense of raising a bride price has also led to young women being kidnapped and sold directly to their husbands at a fraction of what a bride price would be. This disturbing practice has become particularly prevalent in China, where women of a marriageable age are few and far between, and therefore bride prices are extremely high.

Chinese Wedding

Bride Price A Big Problem For Cinese Men

Chinese men are also finding themselves on the receiving end of bride price abuse. The one child policy started in 1979 resulted in countless families having only sons (due to the Chinese preference for sons, many female infants were killed). That generation is now reaching the age of marriage, and as of the 2005 census, there were 32 million more men under the age of 20 than women, according to a study published by the British Journal of Medicine. This has resulted in a desperate shortage of women, and exorbitant bride prices. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on cases of bride price fraud in which young men paid as much as five times what their families earned in a year. Shortly after the marriage, the brides disappeared with the money, never to be seen again. It is believed that these frauds were committed as part of an organized ring. As more and more Chinese young men seek wives from a tiny pool of candidates, this problem is only likely to expand.


Due to the way in which they manifest themselves in the modern world, most human rights groups agree that it is time for dowries and bride prices to truly become a thing of the past. In their current form, these payments most often occur in parts of the world where arranged marriages are still commonplace. When the exchange of marriage vows also involves the exchange of money, trouble cannot be far behind.


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