Bride price, sometimes called bridewealth, often understood as “purchase money” was regarded as incompatible with British legal jurisprudence and colonial Christian traditions. It became an obstacle to the legal recognition of indigenous marriage practices. Contemporary feminists consider the practice to be inherently anti-feminist and a relic of the pas that upholds traditional patriarchal norms. In some ways, they are correct, but there is more to the story.
The late John Uzo Ogbu, a Nigerian-American anthropologist and professor at UC Berkeley, conducted an analysis on 60 bride wealth practices across the African continent. He used data sets from the African Series of ethnographic surveys from the International African Institute. Central to his research is the question; what rights if any, does the woman achieve in marriage in African societies? He uses this question to better understand the relationship between a woman’s status and bridewealth practices.
Bridewealth payments, he argues, establishes marriage as legal and confers reciprocal conjugal rights on husbands and wives who are held accountable for violations of these rights. This article is a summary of his findings.
But first, some definitions;
Marriage according to Ogbu is “a publicly recognized union established between one man and one or more women, or between two women, or between a woman and one or more men, in accordance with the defining rules of a given society.”
There are two points of emphasis here. First, marriage is a publically recognized union in which legal status is endowed on the wedded. Marriage enjoys protected rights, privileges, and obligations by virtue of having been established according to the recognized rules of that society. Secondly, the rules around who gets to be married and how they become married are specific to each society.
We note, Ogbu’s definition of marriage does not include relationships between men, and people from diverse genders.
Is the bride price a purchase payment, what is the role of bride price?
With the data from the sixty societies surveyed in the ethnographic survey, one phenomenon stands out. Bride price is not a purchase payment. Bridewealth payment is a societally recognized custom that constitutes marriage as legally binding. It is akin to the signing of a marriage certificate.
In sub-Saharan African societies, the family of the groom often partakes in ritualized gift-giving marriage ceremonies. Gift-giving ceremonies serve to maintain positive relationships between the households to be wedded. In the long run, these ritualized payments may exceed the bridewealth, but they do not constitute a legal agreement in and of themselves. The bridewealth is the part of the gift that constitutes the essential condition for lawful marriage, and it is the sole legal instrument for the transfer of marital rights.
The primary function of bridewealth is to legitimize the marriage. Without it, lovers or intendeds cannot claim to be married, and such a union is not recognized by society as a marriage.
How does bridewealth compare in matrilineal and patrilineal societies?
Ogbu’s survey highlights a strong correlation between bridewealth payment and the affiliation of children in patrilineal societies, and none in matrilineal societies. “In a patrilineal society, provided the bride price has been paid, the man is entitled to keep the children after a divorce, although with some conditions”. In most of the forty-one patrilineal societies surveyed, and most of the societies with hybrid inheritance rules, the man receives the bridewealth back when marriage is dissolved if there are no children born of the marriage.
In some patrilineal, matrilineal, and double-unilineal societies, but in most bilineal societies, the husband takes custody of children and is also refunded his full bridewealth if he is innocent in the conflicts leading to the divorce.
According to the survey, in societies like the Bigo, Ga, Kafa, Shona, Tswana and twenty other patrilineal societies, the man usually forfeits a part or all of his bridewealth if he takes custody of the children at divorce.
In patrilineal societies like the Bamaleke, Banen, Ewe, Orika, and Susu, the man is refunded his full bridewealth if there are no children. The Ibo, Ibibio, Taita, Yoruba and Ganda man, whether innocent or guilty, gets custody of all the children and receives a full refund of his bridewealth. The ethnographic literature provides no explanation for this unusual situation.
Amongst the Kpe and Yako people of the nine bilateral and double descent societies, the man forfeits his bridewealth if he takes the children at divorce. Amongst the Dwala, Jukun, Mende, Ngoni, Sotho, and Fanti, he gets both the children and the bridewealth if he is the innocent party in the divorce case.
A noteworthy difference between patrilineal and both the double descent and bilateral societies is that in the latter a man’s claim to the children and the bridewealth at divorce depends largely on his innocence in the conflicts leading to dissolution of the marriage.
Although it may seem on the surface that the majority of patrilines retain rights to their children during the dissolution of a marriage, it is not clear that a woman loses rights to her children. She may cease to be a wife, but continue to be a mother. Despite the men holding rights over their children, this does not forbid their mothers from fulfilling regular customary, social and ceremonial parental duties to their children.
Lastly, these inconsistencies in descent and lineage are not caused by or the outcome of the bridewealth payment. The payment simply serves to legitimize the marriage in public under the agreed-upon norms of the society. Both husband and wife acquire certain rights in and obligations toward children born during their marriage, and these rights and responsibilities do not terminate at divorce.
Does the bride price undermine women’s status?
The bridewealth payment is the legal requirement that sets the legitimization of marriage. Asking if the bridewealth undermines the status of women is akin to asking if the exchange of rings at a Christian altar, or the signing of a marriage certificate undermines the status of a woman. These acts, as long as they are consensual and operate based on the established norms and customs of the society, bring both parties into a shared understanding and accountability for their union.
This is not an argument to absolve the deep misogynist traditions that exist in many forms across the African continent. I have no time and no sympathy for those who limit women’s freedoms, injure their bodies, undermine their agency, and stifle their reproductive rights. Many African societies are profoundly patriarchal, and ritualize oppression of women and girls. These practices are wrong. They are also not uniquely African, and in this vein, Africa is not different from any other part of the world. Women continue to be harmed all over the world, and indeed a serious measure of progress in any region is how it treats women and girls. The inferior status of women continues to be perpetuated in societies where bridewealth is paid and where rings are exchanged.
Historically, societies such as the Igbo, Yoruba, and Dahomeans where women could acquire property of their own and enjoyed economic independence, also observed bridewealth customs. Ogbu argues those looking to emancipate women from traditional patriarchies must turn their attention to economic independence of African women. He argues commentators on this bridewealth tradition “need to study the influence of other forces such as women’s economic status before generalizing about the determinants of the status of African women in marriage and domestic life.”
Are there differences between traditional bride prices systems and modern-day practices?
Some fundamental changes occurred as Indigenous African economies transitioned into cash economies. With cash, economies came cash bride price payments. This, in turn, leads to inflation in bridewealth payments. This inflation made it increasingly difficult for young men to find brides. It also undermined the significance this tradition had in the minds of young Africans.
Besides, increased western-style education for women, the proliferation of European courts, labour migration, and economic empowerment accelerated an environment for them to initiate divorces and seek advancement outside traditional society.
On the whole, bridewealth payments continue in many parts of Africa, and so does women’s empowerment. I do not take lightly the critical work of those who are looking to abolish systems of misogyny and patriarchy that is ridden in many Indigenous African traditions. If this means abolishing the totality of our culture, so be it. I only suggest that we understand what we want to abolish before we abolish it. Are the bridewealth practices today practised as our ancestors intended them, or is the problem that they have strayed too far from their original design?
Bridewealth is an equalizer. Do things that make people equal also make them unequal at the same time? Should this be abolished or returned to its original form? Do the origins of a thing even matter when what is felt is the consequences. Lobolo payments establish marriage as legal and confer reciprocal rights on husbands and wives who are held accountable for violations of these rights. This is why it was created. Aren’t you at least a little bit curious at how much your Lobolo would be?