The dowry is an ancient tradition found across cultures, religions, and time periods. It is not certain where dowries originated, but the custom takes place in wedding ceremonies even today.
What Is a Dowry?
A dowry is a gift of substantial monetary value given from either the bride or groom to their future spouse upon marriage.
“The custom is that you never go anywhere empty-handed,” says Santhosh Bhau, a Hindu Brahmin Priest. “The dowry serves as a gift from the bride’s family to the groom’s family as a kind gesture for welcoming her into their home.” We consulted with Bhau and Dr. Xavier Livermon to learn more about the history and meaning of the dowry, as well as address some common questions and myths about the tradition.
Meet the Expert
- Santhosh Bhau is a Hindu Brahmin Priest based in Vajreshwari, a village outside of Mumbai.
- Dr. Xavier Livermon is an associate professor of African Studies at the University of Texas.
The History and Meaning of the Dowry
During the Roman Empire, the bride’s family would provide a dowry to the groom or his family to offset the cost of her living expenses. While it is commonly thought that a dowry is always given by a woman to her future husband, it is the reverse in other cultures, where the groom offers a gift to the bride or her family upon marriage. The dowry can serve as a gift to in-laws or insurance for the bride should she choose to leave her husband. It is something she can take with her in the event of divorce to ensure her financial security. Other terms for this exchange may be “bride price” or “bridewealth.”
Over time, it became common practice for families to exploit the dowry system all over the world in some cases. What was meant to be a gift and promise of security from one partner to another soon became a financial demand that resulted in broken engagements or divorce, violence, and even death for unpaid dowries. It is for this reason that countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Greece, and Kenya passed laws making dowries illegal in any capacity.
Today, the dowry has evolved into a more informal and casual custom across most cultures, especially amongst members of the African and South Asian diasporas. It is a way to keep traditions alive and pay homage to a couple’s culture(s).
Who pays the dowry?
This varies from across different cultures and religions. A Hindu bride’s family typically gives the groom a gift of significant monetary value or dowry. The value of the dowry is dependent on factors such as class or income. In Muslim cultures, however, it is the groom that bequeaths a gift or Mahr to his bride. The bride price is also commonly practiced by many major Black African cultural groups across all regardless of socioeconomic standing.
How much is a dowry?
The amount of dowry depends on the culture and on factors such as class or income. In addition to cash, a dowry can also come in the form of jewelry, furniture, property, a vehicle, or livestock.
When is the dowry given?
Dowries are commonly given just before the marriage takes place or at the marriage ceremony. Less often is the dowry paid after marriage.
Common Myths About the Dowry
Dowries only take place in India.
FALSE: It is widely believed that dowries are a tradition exclusively found in South Asian countries and cultures. However, many other cultures participate in the dowry system today including but not limited to Jewish, Slavic, Arab, East Asian, North-African, and Sub-Saharan African cultures.
Dowries are the price a groom pays for his bride.
FALSE: Bride price and dowry is often incorrectly defined as a man’s payment for a wife OR if the reverse, the price a bride pays to get married. These are not true definitions because while something of value may be exchanged from one partner to the other, it is considered a gift, not the price one pays to get married. It is something a woman can take as security should she choose to leave her husband. In certain cultures, the dowry can even be the engagement ring itself.
The South African concept of lobola recognizes women’s labor to society. It’s a material and symbolic gift a husband gives his wife in recognition of her reproductive labor and her labor in the rural homestead. All of that labor is highly valued in an African cultural context. The idea of a lobola is to compensate for the value of the loss of that contribution in the familial home of the bride. “Traditionally, lobola has always been in the form of livestock such as cattle,” says Livermon. “Today, it could be money, a vehicle, jewelry, or household goods.”
In Indian cultures, it is usually custom that one never goes empty-handed when they are invited anywhere. Historically in most Indian cultures, the bride lived with her husband in his ancestral home with his family. The dowry is a present a bride takes with her to her new in-laws.
Only rich families participate in the dowry system.
FALSE: Dowry and bride price is practiced amongst even the poorest families.