Sometimes when I am deep in thoughts, I think about how wealthy my father would become. Being a Nigerian father of four daughters, my father has the potential to be a wealthy and celebrated man. If nothing else makes him wealthy, his daughters would. Actually, their marriages would.
As a Nigerian, precisely with Yoruba daughters, my father has the right to demand and receive whatever he wishes from his daughter’s suitors before accepting to give their hand in marriage. Called bride price or dowry, the suitors are obliged to ‘pay’ all that my father demands so long the suitors are still interested in the marriage. In fact, the bride price is even more than just my father’s entitlement; it’s his entire family’s right. The bride price could be money, foodstuff, lands, gadgets, cars or any other gift.
This is very different from the Western culture where no one demands or gives payment in exchange for or as a consideration for marriage. But this dowry system is not specific to only Africa. It is also practised in other countries. In India for instance, dowry is prominent in marriages although with a different approach. Practically, the Indian bride and her family are obliged to pay a bride price to the groom who makes the decision of what the bride price would be before the marriage.
The style of dowry payment may differ but the central person in the transaction still remains the bride. The bride is like the celebrant and her worth is considered before any demand is made. For instance, in Nigeria, the bride’s father determines his daughter’s bride price based on her beauty, educational attainment or skills in order to prove to her suitor how ‘expensive’ she is. In India also, the groom considers the woman’s worth and standard to know how much he needs to take ‘care’ of her before billing her family for the bride price.
Although the bride is the main person in the dowry system, she has no opinion on what is demanded of her and also, she may not benefit from her own bride price. But these things are little compared to what women actually go through regarding bride price. Women are tortured, used as properties and sometimes even killed on matters related to their dowry. But do they have a choice? No, they barely do. The dowry system is rooted in deep patriarchal culture and misogynistic behaviors.
So how do women get killed for their dowries?
Dowry is seen as a precondition for marriage. The dowry has to be paid in full or half before the marriage can take place and even after the marriage, the family may still demand more. In India for instance, women are harassed and tortured for more dowries even after marriage. Called dowry deaths, some are compelled to commit suicide or are murdered by their husbands (or his family) for refusing to continually pay dowries.
A recent case concerned a pregnant woman, Suvi who died after several beatings from her husband and his family for refusing to buy him a car as part of her dowry. Also, 36-year-old Sangeeta was attacked and killed with acid by her husband and his family for not paying a demanded amount of money to complete her dowry.
Despite its outlaw in 1961, families in India still demand and pay dowry as a consideration for marriage. One may think that dowry deaths exist only in poor communities but this may not always be the case as 20 death cases of dowry deaths are recorded every day in India and less than 35% of those cases are investigated, according to National Crime Records Bureau.
Not only in India do women face humiliations over dowries. Also in Nigeria where men pay the bride price, some husbands try to justify their maltreat, harass and abuse of their wives arguing that with the bride price, they have ‘bought’ the woman and so, she is at their mercy. Sometimes these women are treated worse than slaves with their mental, physical and sexual well being humiliated.
The maltreatment that women face over bride price regardless of who pays it is demeaning. The fact that women are treated as low-profiles and traded as commodities showcase the inequality and deep-rooted patriarchal culture the society is in today. Women cannot be priced. Their value, worth and dignity should not be quantified. A woman’s value is not in the amount of dowry paid or not paid but it is in the freedom, independence and dignity that she upholds.