On a home movie viewing session with my friends the other day, I gaped at a scene where a forlorn and impoverished woman could not marry because the groom’s family had demanded a car as dowry. More towards reality, I remember being in dismay hearing tales of prospective grooms struggling to save for the exorbitant bride price demanded by the bride’s family.
What is a dowry, and what is a bride price? How did they make the jump from respectable traditions to entertainment devices meant to wring sympathy from viewers?
In a nutshell, a dowry is property or wealth given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family. The bride price is given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Originally, a dowry was given to help establish the household of the newlyweds. It came with many regulations to ensure that the wife and children would still have something to take care of themselves with in the event of the husband’s untimely death. The newlyweds were the main beneficiaries of the dowry, not the families they come from. Of course, different families and cultures have different expectations and practices in this regard. In some western cultures, it is a given that the bride must wear her grandmother’s or mother’s wedding dress for her wedding day!
A bride price was slightly different, in that it was given to the bride’s family before marriage as proof that the groom would treat his new wife well, and was financially able to take care of her and any children to come. If the man ended up marrying someone else, he forfeited his bride price. It was a serious decision to make in times past.
Both started out as reasonable and well-meaning traditions meant to protect the new family and ensure stability in their lives. Both have morphed into something else altogether, in almost all cultures across the world.
It is hard to deny that modern marriages are beginning to look like business transactions nowadays, when families of the bride and groom come together for lengthy meetings with witnesses and whatnots to decide on a bride price and/or dowry – depending on where you stay. And that is where the main bone of my contention lies.
You’re marrying your son/daughter off, not selling them!
True, parents do want to know that their future in-laws will be financially stable enough to provide and care for for their children. They also want to know that their future in-laws value their children enough to pay a high price for them if need be. But, consider: the price that is demanded from either party will end up setting back the newlyweds financially in the first place. Why start your children’s new family in debt, just to send them off in style?
For many families, demanding a high sum is merely a formality, as they will usually return all or majority of the price at the end of the ceremony. My question to ones holding such an attitude is, why demand that price in the first place, then? If a token is all that is necessary, would it kill you to relieve the other party’s already stressful marriage preparations by lowering the sum or just not asking for it at all?
In many developing countries (and even some first world countries!) where these customs are practiced, parents sometimes sell their daughters off to the highest bidder, in an attempt to get out of the poverty that traps them. On the other hand, grooms sometimes demand unreasonable dowries for their brides to cash in on the situation – especially if the community stigmatises women that become unwed after a certain age. In India, the situation warrants such serious attention that “dowry death” – women who are murdered or commit suicide as a result of in-laws who try to demand more dowry – has become a subset of domestic violence.
I seriously believe this whole system of dowry and bride price should be scrapped, or restored to its original form where the newlyweds benefited from the arrangement, and not their families. Indeed, if there is no heart in the gift, then it should not be given at all.
All things considered, if you live in Singapore, perhaps the various parties are better off getting a Singapore wedding planner to suss out all the details of wedding formalities. It is certainly no fun if one is to start off such an important day in their life by being stressed out by wedding customs that may be outdated.