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Bride price, also known as bridewealth or bride token, is an amount of money or property or wealth paid by the groom or his family to the parents of a woman upon the marriage of their daughter to the groom. (Compare dowry, which is paid to the groom, or used by the bride to help establish the new household, and dower, which is property settled on the bride herself by the groom at the time of marriage.) The agreed bride price may or may not be intended to reflect the perceived value of the girl or young woman.
The same culture may simultaneously practice both dowry and bride price. Many cultures practiced bride price prior to existing records.
In anthropological literature, bride price has often been explained in market terms, as payment made in exchange for the bride's family's loss of her labor and fertility within her kin group.
The bride price may be seen as related to present-day customs of maintenance for the wife in the event of the breakup of marriage, and family maintenance in the event of the husband not providing adequately for the wife in his will. Another function performed by the amount was to provide a disincentive for the husband to divorce his wife: he would need to have a certain amount to be able to pay to the wife. [?]
An evolutionary psychology explanation for dowry and bride price is that bride price is common in polygynous societies which have a relative scarcity of available women. In monogamous societies where women have little personal wealth dowry is instead common since there is a relative scarcity of wealthy men who can choose from many potential women when marrying.
The Code of Hammurabi mentions bride price in various laws as an established custom. It is not the payment of the bride price that is prescribed, but the regulation of various aspects:
- a man who paid the bride price but looked for another bride would not get a refund, but he would if the father of the bride refused the match
- if a wife died without sons, her father was entitled to the return of her dowry, minus the value 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.
Deuteronomy 22:28–29 similarly states:
- If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
In the Jewish tradition, the rabbis in ancient times insisted on the marriage couple's entering into a marriage contract, called a ketubah. The ketubah provided for an amount to be paid by the husband in the event of a divorce or by his estate in the event of his death. This amount was a replacement of the biblical dower or bride price, which was payable at the time of the marriage by the groom.
This innovation came about because the bride price created a major social problem: many young prospective husbands could not raise the amount at the time when they would normally be expected to marry. So, to enable these young men to marry, the rabbis, in effect, delayed the time that the amount would be payable, when they would be more likely to have the sum. It may also be noted that both the dower and the ketubah amounts served the same purpose: the protection for the wife should her support (either by death or divorce) cease. The only difference between the two systems was the timing of the payment.
Some of the marriage settlements mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey suggest that bride-price was a custom of Homeric society. The language used for various marriage transactions, however, may blur distinctions between bride-price and dowry, and a third practice called "indirect dowry," whereby the groom hands over property to the bride which is then used to establish the new household. "Homeric society" is a fictional construct involving legendary figures and deities, though drawing on the historical customs of various times and places in the Greek world. At the time when the Homeric epics were composed, "primitive" practices such as bride-price and polygamy were no longer part of Greek society; mentions of them preserve, if they have a historical basis at all, customs dating from the Age of Migrations (ca. 1200–1000 BC) and the two centuries following.
In the Iliad, Agamemnon promises Achilles that he can take a bride without paying the bride-price (Greek hednon), instead receiving a dowry (pherne). In the Odyssey, the least arguable references to bride-price are in the marriage settlements for Ctimene, the sister of Odysseus; Pero, the daughter of Neleus, who demanded cattle for her; and the goddess Aphrodite herself, whose husband Hephaestus threatens to make her father Zeus return the bride-price given for her, because she was adulterous. It is possible that the Homeric "bride-price" is part of a reciprocal exchange of gifts between the prospective husband and the bride's father, but while gift exchange is a fundamental practice of aristocratic friendship and hospitality, it occurs rarely, if at all, in connection with marriage arrangements.
Islamic law commands a groom to give the bride a gift called a Mahr prior to the consummation of the marriage. A mahr differs from the standard meaning of bride-price in that it is not to the family of the bride, but to the wife to keep for herself; it is thus more accurately described as a dower. In the Qur'an, it is mentioned in chapter 4, An-Nisa, verse 4 as follows:
And give to the women (whom you marry) their Mahr [obligatory bridal money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage] with a good heart; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it without fear of any harm (as Allah has made it lawful).
Islamic law considers it haraam for a husband, the groom's family or the bride's family to take the mahr of the bride without her willful decision.
Morning gifts, which might be arranged by the bride's father rather than the bride, are given to the bride herself. The name derives from the Germanic tribal custom of giving them the morning after the wedding night. The woman might have control of this morning gift during the lifetime of her husband, but is entitled to it when widowed. If the amount of her inheritance is settled by law rather than agreement, it may be called dower. Depending on legal systems and the exact arrangement, she may not be entitled to dispose of it after her death, and may lose the property if she remarries. Morning gifts were preserved for many centuries in morganatic marriage, a union where the wife's inferior social status was held to prohibit her children from inheriting a noble's titles or estates. In this case, the morning gift would support the wife and children. Another legal provision for widowhood was jointure, in which property, often land, would be held in joint tenancy, so that it would automatically go to the widow on her husband's death.
The tradition of giving bride price is still practiced in many Asian countries, parts of Africa and in some Pacific Island societies, notably those in Melanesia. The amount changing hands may range from a token to continue the traditional ritual, to many thousands of US dollars in some Thai marriages, and as much as a $100,000 in exceptionally large bride prices in parts of Papua New Guinea where bride price is customary. In some cultures, mostly in Central Africa and parts of inner Mongolia, it is not uncommon to see brides priced by weight.
In Thailand, bride price (Thai: สินสอด, pronounced [sĭn sòt] and often erroneously referred to by the English term "dowry") is common in both Thai-Thai and Thai-foreign marriages. The bride price may range from nothing, if the woman is divorced, has a child fathered by another man, or is widely known to have had premarital relations with men; upwards to tens of millions of Thai baht (US$300,000) for a woman of high social standing, a beauty queen, or a highly educated woman. The bride price in Thailand is paid at the engagement ceremony, and consists of three elements: cash, Thai (96.5% pure) gold, and the more recent Western tradition of a diamond ring. The most commonly stated rationale for the bride price in Thailand is that it allows the groom to demonstrate that he has enough financial resources to support the bride (and possibly her family) after the wedding. In many cases, especially when the amount is large, the parents of a Thai bride will return all or part of the bride price to the couple in the form of a wedding gift following the engagement ceremony.
In traditional Chinese culture, an auspicious date is selected to ti qin (simplified Chinese: 提亲; traditional Chinese: 提親; literally "propose marriage"), where both families will meet to discuss the amount of the bride price (Chinese: 娉金; pinyin: pīng jīn; literally "abundant gold") demanded, among other things. Several weeks before the actual wedding, the ritual of guo da li (simplified Chinese: 过大礼; traditional Chinese: 過大禮; literally "going through the great ceremony") takes place (on an auspicious date). The groom and a matchmaker will visit the bride's family bearing gifts like wedding cakes, sweetmeats and jewelry, as well as the bride price. On the actual wedding day, the bride's family will return a portion of the bride price (sometimes in the form of dowry) as a goodwill gesture.
Bride prices vary from CN¥1,000,000 in famously money-centric Shanghai to as little as CN¥10,000. Also often required along with bride price are typically a house (apartment is acceptable, but rentals are not) and a car, neither of whose dollar values are counted against the bride price itself. In some regions, bride's families may demand other varieties of gifts, none counted against the bride price itself. May 18 is a particularly auspicious day on which to pay the bride price and marry as its Chinese wording is phoenetically similar to "I will get rich". Bride prices are rising quickly in China  largely without documentation but a definite verbal and cultural understanding of where bride prices are today. Gender inequality in China has increased competition for ever higher bride prices. Financial distress is unacceptable and ignored justification to not pay the bride price. If the grooms' side cannot agree or pay, they or simply the groom himself must still pay a bride price  thus borrowing from relatives is a popular if not required option to "save face". Inability to pay is cause for preventing a marriage which either side can equally recommend. Privately, familes need bride prices due to China's lack of a social security net and a one child policy which leaves parents with neither retirement funding nor caretaking if their only child is taken away as brides typically move into the groom's residence upon marrying as well as testing the groom's ability to marry by paying cash  and emotionally giving up his resources to the bride. Publically, families cite bride price as sustenence in case the man abandons or divorces the wife and that the bride price creates goodwill between families. Groom's side should pay more what the bride's side has demanded to "save face". Amounts preferably follow the usual red envelope conventions though the sum is far more important.
- Ti qin 提亲, "propose a marriage";
- He tian ming 和天命, "Accord with Heaven's mandate" (i.e. find a ritually auspicious day);
- Jian mian 见面, "looking in the face", i.e. meeting;
- Ding hun 订婚, "being betrothed";
- Yao ri zi 要日子, "asking the wifegivers the date of the wedding"; and
- Jie xin ren 接新人, "transferring the bride".
The tradition is upheld in Afghanistan as well. A "dark distortion" of it involved a 6-year old daughter of an Afghan refugee from Helmand Province in a Kabul refugee camp, who was to be married to the son of money lender who lent the girl's father $2500 so the man could pay medical bills. According to anthropologist Deniz Kandiyoti, the practice increased after the fall of the Taliban.
In parts of Africa, a traditional marriage ceremony depends on payment of a bride price to be valid. The amount can vary from a token to a great sum. Lobola or Lobolo is a similar tradition in some cultures in Southern Africa. In the African Great Lakes country of Uganda, the MIFUMI Project held a referendum in Tororo in 2001 on whether a bride price should be a non-refundable gift. In 2004, it held an international conference on the bride price in Kampala, Uganda.It brought together activists from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa to discuss the effect that payment of bride price has on women. Delegates also talked about ways of eliminating this practice in Africa and elsewhere. It also issued a preamble position in 2008. In 2007 MIFUMI took the Uganda Government to the Constitutional Court wishing the court to rule that the practice of Bride Price is un-constitutional. The case was heard in September 2009 and judgement is pending. To change customary law on bride price in Uganda, however, is difficult as it is guarded by society with some women, especially in the rural areas still approving its relevance. Customary law is also considered more than just bride price but other rituals and ceremonies that enrich Ugandan cultures. Next to constitutional changes, changes in customary law are necessary to abolish the practice.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the visits between families to negotiate the bride price are traditional customs that are considered by many Africans to be central to African marriage and society. The negotiations themselves have been described as the crucial component of the practice, since they provide the families of the bride and groom the opportunity to meet and forge important bonds. The price itself is a symbolic "token", although the custom has also been described as "the license of owning a family in the African institution of marriage". In some African cultures, the price of a bride is connected with her reputation and esteem in the community, an aspect that has been criticized as demeaning to women. In some African cultures, such as the Fang people in Equatorial Guinea, and some regions in Uganda, the price is considered the purchase price of a wife, and the husband exercises economic control over her.
The majority ethnic group of Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people practise the bride price custom in a way that subjugates women who find themselves in an unhappy marriage. Divorce has a social stigma among the Fang, and in the event that a woman intends to leave her husband, she is expected to return the goods initially paid to her family. If she is unable to pay the debt, she can be imprisoned. Although women and men in theory have equal inheritance rights, in practise men are normally the ones to inherit property. This economic disadvantage reinforces women's lack of freedom and lower social status.
The practice of bride price in Kenya declined rapidly during the 20th century. Research has indicated that a decline in the amounts men were willing to pay came as women's value as agricultural labourers declined. Economic changes led to a stagnation in agricultural growth. Kenyan men, and women, found economic opportunities in urban areas. Since the labour of women (and children) was no longer as important, Kenyan men became less likely to pay a bride price. Today they instead often choose to cohabit without marriage. The Vugusu people of Kenya practise a combination of bride price and dowry. There, a reciprocal exchange takes place, with "a large number of items between a sizable number of people from both families".
The common term for the arrangement in southern Africa is lobolo, from the Nguni language, a term often used in central and western Africa as well. Elders controlled the marriage arrangements. In South Africa, the custom survived colonial influences, but was transformed by capitalism. Once young men began working in mines and other colonial businesses, they gained the means to increase the lobolo, leading elders to increase the value required for lobolo in order to maintain their control.
In many parts of Central Asia, bride price is still expected and mandatory. Various names for it in Central Asia include Kazakh: қалыңмал [qaləɴmal], Kyrgyz: калың [qɑlɯ́ŋ], Uzbek: qalin [qalɨn], and Russian: калым [kɐˈlɨm]. It is also common in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The price may range from a small sum of money or a single piece of livestock to what amounts to a herd of livestock, depending on local traditions and the expectations and agreements of the families involved.
Papua New Guinea
Traditional marriage customs vary widely in Papua New Guinea. A one extreme are moiety (or 'sister exchange') societies, where a man must have a real or classificatory sister to give in exchange for a wife, but is not required to pay a bride price as is understood elsewhere in the country. At the other extreme are resource rich areas of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, where locally-traded valuables in the form of shells and stone axes, were displaced by money and modern manufactures (including vehicles and white goods) during the 20th century. Extremely high bride prices are now paid in the Highlands, where even ordinary village men are expected to draw on their relations to pay their wive's relatives pigs and cash to the value of between $5,000 and $10,000. Where either or both of the couple is university-educated or well-placed in business or politics, the amount paid may escalate to $50,000-$100,000 when items like a new bus or Toyota 4WD are taken into account. Bride prices may be locally inflated by mining royalties, and are higher near the economically more prosperous national capital, Port Moresby.
For most couples in most provinces, however, if a bride price is paid, it will amount to up to a dozen pigs, domestic goods, and more amounts of cash.
- A famous Telugu play Kanyasulkam (Bride Price) satirised the practice and the brahminical notions that kept it alive. Though the practice no longer exists in India, the play, and the movie based on it, are still extremely popular in Andhra Pradesh.
- A popular Mormon film, Johnny Lingo, used the device of a bride price of a shocking amount in one of its most pivotal scenes.
- The plot of "A Home for the Highland Cattle", a short story by Doris Lessing hinges on whether a painting of cattle can be accepted in place of actual cattle for "lobola", bride price in a southern African setting.
- Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta wrote a novel titled The Bride Price (1976).
- The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Edited by Robin Dunbar and Louise Barret, Oxford University Press, 2007, Chapter 26 The evolutionary ecology of family size.
- A.M. Snodgrass, Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece (Cornell University Press, 2006), p. 177.
- Snodgrass, Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece, p. 180.
- Snodgrass, Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece, p. 185.
- Iliad 9.146; Snodgrass, Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece, p. 179.
- Odyssey 15.367.
- Odyssey 11.287–297 and 15.231–238. The two versions vary, but the bride-price demanded takes the form of a mythological test, labor, or ordeal; William G. Thalman, The Swineherd and the Bow: Representations of Class in the Odyssey (Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 157f.
- Snodgrass, Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece, p. 178.
- Snodgrass, Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece, pp. 178–177.
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- Hirsch, Jennifer S., Wardlow, Holly, Modern loves: the anthropology of romantic courtship & companionate marriage, Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0-472-09959-0. Cf. Chapter 1 "Love and Jewelry", on the bride price.