I Do Not Want to Have a Bride Price [Writing Prompt Included]

One African feminist believes that participating in the bride price custom is dehumanizing to women. Click through to read her take on the matter.

Last thanksgiving, I managed to speak silence into existence once I finished verbalizing my thoughts on the bride price custom in cross-cultural scenarios. (For those who do not know, bride price is the practice in which a groom gives money and valuable goods to bride’s family in exchange for his woman’s hand in marriage.) I was with Nigerian loved ones who were discussing wedding practices and my thoughts on the bride price custom were met with quiet, disappointed gazes. I found it wrong for Nigerian parents to assume or force the bride price onto their 1st generation or 2nd generation children when they get married. Given that these families are now located abroad, their children have mingled and grown up with people outside of the Nigerian demographic. As such, it has been common to hear of and witness ceremonies between 1st or 2nd generation Nigerians and non-Nigerians. I told them that marriages across nationalities may affect whether or not the bride price ritual is practiced between the two parties. After all, other countries have their engagement and marriage customs. I mentioned that assumptions may likely breed disappointment and hurt in many cross-cultural situations; communication is key and compromise will likely need to happen, especially when it comes to marriage ceremony practices between two people from different cultures.

Although they did not seem thrilled, they listened attentively to what I had to say. And perhaps, it is better that I did not say anything more. After all, I only mentioned the need for Nigerian parents to leave room for compromise in situations when their children marry outside of the Nigerian demographic.

What I did not tell them is that I am not so keen on the bride price practice itself.

I Don't Want To Have a Bride Price

My perception of bride price is similar to how I view one of my favorite purchases I made last year. It was a gold blouse from a small consignment boutique not too far from downtown. It is a tad oversized and made of swingy material and it pairs well with black leggings and boots. As much as I could ogle at its shininess and durability, I could not call it mine until I purchased it. In many ways, the bride price ritual is not that much different from a transaction.

Instead of a shirt, we have a woman. Instead of being shiny and gold, she has amazing qualities like a compassionate heart and an ambitious drive. Instead of a store owner, we have a the woman’s father. And instead of a customer, we have a man who hopes to marry the woman. In order for the groom to have the woman’s hand in marriage, he has to pay a bride price. The bride price is presented to the bride during the traditional marriage ceremony after the bride’s family and the groom’s family have come to an agreement on the price beforehand. But behind the jubilation, the music and the bright, colorful outfits, there are deep seated issues concerning the implications of the bride price.

I have noticed how some Nigerians believe that chaste women are worthy of a higher bride price than those who are not virgins. In various Nigerian communities abroad, I remember hearing about men who would be unashamedly promiscuous while single and yet only desire a chaste, Christian woman once they were ready to settle down. I am aware of how abusive Nigerian men think that they have an excuse to be beat their wives because, after all, they paid her bride price. And because of the popularity of such idea, the link between domestic violence and bride price has been a subject of interest, not only in Nigeria, but in other African countries. The Centre For Human Rights Advancement (CEHURA) has actually done an exploratory study on bride price in Uganda, and the exploitation of women is listed among the problems that they found in the bride price practice. Below is an excerpt from their study.

A clan leader identified among others the impact of bride price on women and said ‘It enslaves the woman…disrespects her because the woman was bought through bride price.’ A religious leader mentioned that bride price was a human rights offence and said ‘It is not right to put human beings on the commercial market, bargain for them and when one is fed up, dump them leaving the woman psychologically tortured. Women lose their dignity, have to do endless hard labour–and then failure to produce children becomes a big crime once you have been paid for.’ This exploitation was also mentioned by a government official who said ‘A woman turns to property of the man after paying bride price and she is exploited to the maximum and this deprives her of her rights.’

According to the CEHURA, what was once a meaningful cultural practice with a rich history has now become something that dehumanizes women because a woman has now become a something to be bartered.

I Don't Want to Have a Bride Price (2)

The higher her price, the higher her worth. The lower the price, the lower her worth. But even if her price is high, a number has been set. And when you put a dollar sign on a human being, you have cheapened their worth.

“But, Mary, it is not that serious,” loved ones would say. “A bride price is supposed to demonstrate to the woman’s father that the man can take care of his woman.” And to that I say…has he spent all this time dating the woman or the woman’s father ? Since he has obviously dated the woman, shouldn’t the man be focused on showing his woman that he can take care of her? If the woman says yes to his proposal, does that not indicate that she believes he can do that for her? Or can her decision not be trusted?

Let us also look at the rise of ambitious women in the continent and abroad. Many African women, unmarried and married alike, are making a living and they contribute to the family’s income. If a man loses his job or faces some unforeseeable obstacle in his career that makes his paycheck suffer, does that make him any less of a man? If he is married and his wife’s income is the only one that sustains the family at any point in time or even supersedes his income, will he not feel like he is a fraud because we have tied his ability to provide to his worth as a man? Aren’t we just setting up African masculinity to be so fragile?

As it turns out, men were not excluded as victims in the the CEHURW study; the CEHURW also found other problems with bride price: the economic burden that men carry if the money asked for by the bride’s family is too high and the loss of respect men experience if they are unable to fully pay the bride price. It is so sad to think how a lower-class man can truly love his woman, but will be shunned simply because he cannot extravagantly demonstrate it with money or expensive gifts as per the request of his bride’s family.

I Don't Want To Have a Bride Price

Coming to these realizations (and other ones regarding the patriarchy in Africa) often puts me in a cycle of frustration. I start off wondering what kind of woman I would have been if I did not spend most of my childhood living in the Western World. After all, that is where I learned about feminism. Then, I get upset because my eyes have been opened to the ugliness that the patriarchy has unleashed in my Nigerian culture, and I wonder if ignorant bliss is the better alternative. Later, I snap back to the reality that feminism is not the West’s gift to women in Africa. In fact, feminism has always existed in Africa. Once I realize this, my frustration is directed at the West. I become bothered by how white feminism has been upheld as the salvation for non-Western women of color, how women’s empowerment is implied to be a concept coined by the West when there are long, rich histories of strong women in non-Western countries. I also become annoyed at Africans who think that women’s empowerment is Western concept and that by being feminist, I am betraying my African identity.

The truth is I have an incredible amount of pride in being an African woman. I enjoy the richness of my Efik culture that celebrates the down-to-earth lifestyle of my village in Southeastern Nigeria. I love the customs that I participate in when I visit my Igbo family’s village in Nigeria. It is in the celebration these parts of my Nigerian identity that I pay homage to my roots. Despite my nomadic childhood, I will never lose sight of where I come from. And I am well aware that one of the most integral parts of my Nigerian culture includes the bride price. And for me to show my displeasure with how a custom of gift-giving has been used as a custom to own women is not to knock Nigerian culture. If anything, I am holding my culture to a higher standard, urging that it humanizes women just as much as it humanizes men by default. Giving gifts to women as a genuine token of love and appreciation is never a bad idea. However, women are human beings. Human beings are inherently valuable. They are not yours to be owned. They do not have a price tag.

Your Turn!

  1. Think about some of the customs or beliefs that are widely accepted in the country (or countries) you come from. I am sure there is at least one you can think of. Be brave enough to publicly write about it. If you want try your hand at a fictional approach to this topic, below is a writing prompt for some inspiration.This writing prompt was inspired by an African woman's thoughts on the bride price custom in her country. Click through for her essay.

  2. What are your thoughts on how multicultural marriage customs should be handled? How about your feelings about marriage customs from the country (or countries) you come from? Let me know in the comments section below.

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  • Ha, well, you know all about how I feel about certain common wedding practices in America.

    I rejected:

    -my husband asking my dad for permission to marry me
    -having a bridal party
    -changing my last name

    I adapted:

    -wearing a white dress by wearing a short white dress with hot pink accessories and accents
    -having my father walk me down the aisle by having my MIL walk my husband down the aisle too
    -throwing a bouquet/garter to single women/men by having both of us throw a candy bouquet to all women/men

    The history of the white wedding dress has way more to do with wealth than “purity,” so that didn’t bother me. But I’ve still been socially conditioned to want to wear a white dress on my wedding day. I just *felt* like it was more “bridal,” but I still wanted to look like me.

    I also knew my dad would totally support me walking down the aisle alone, or with my husband. I also knew my dad would secretly want to walk his only daughter down the aisle. And honestly, my MIL was thrilled when Dan asked her to walk him down the aisle too. I feel like the mother of the groom often gets overshadowed in weddings.

    The whole “person who catches this thing gets married next” really rubs me the wrong way, BUT it’s super-fun to have a bunch of people playfully compete to catch something. So we threw candy bouquets because everyone likes candy.

  • Oooo I like that idea of throwing candy instead of throwing the bouquet. I completely agree with the idea of not having a future husband ask the father for permission to marry. Like you, I am making sure that the future husband-to-be knows that I am not a fan of that.

    I had no idea that the white dress was a wealth thing and not a purity thing! Thanks for sharing that. And I’ve noticed the same thing about the mother of the groom. I like the ways you made your wedding unique! Thanks for sharing them with me, Brita! 🙂

  • Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding dress, although that was already a choice among the wealthy. (I forget if this had to do with the cost of pure white materials or the cost of cleaning white dresses or both). Most women just wore their nicest dress to get married. Queen Victoria did this not to flaunt her wealth, but to showcase handmade English lace. At some point Americans decided the white dress should be about purity. I know you’re totally shocked that Americans reinvented history for their own agenda. 😉

  • I can relate a bit to your cycle of frustration. Sometimes I wonder what kind of woman I’d be if I had grown up in Korea, and what forms my feminism would take.

    I feel like articles about wedding ceremonies and feminism are pretty common here – the last name change in particular tends to get more attention than it deserves. But if I’d been “more Korean,” some of the marriage customs I wrestled with wouldn’t have been an issue, like last names, rings, the dress, etc. Korean women don’t change their names, rings aren’t a custom though some people choose to have them these days, and dresses/tuxedos are usually rented. But then there are feminist issues beyond the ceremony itself, like how the in-laws supersede the bride’s family.

    And if I’d had a Korean wedding, I think my husband would have had to give me a piggyback ride. Or so my students told me.

  • I really appreciate your comment, Kelly. I have learned so much about things I probably would have never known. I had no idea Korean women don’t change their last names or use rings. I wonder the reasoning behind the people that do, like, are they doing it because it is popular in the West and they are wanting to emulate that custom because it is Western? Also, it would be really interesting to read an article that tackles the issue of the groom’s parents taking precedence over the the bride’s parents.

    I just looked up the piggyback ride custom on Google out of curiosity and it says that the groom does that to both his mother and bride as a way of saying that he accepts the responsibilities toward his mother and bride.

    I think renting dresses and tuxes is a pretty efficient use of money haha. But I notice that Westerners and countries heavily influenced by the West put A LOT of value on them and the rings since they are seen as symbols.

  • Hmm not sure. Korean couples usually have a traditional ceremony, but it’s common to have wedding photo shoots, with rented gowns/tuxes and scenic backdrops/cool locations. I definitely saw a lot of people doing this, but I don’t know how that translates to actual numbers and socioeconomic status. And it’s really hard as a Westerner to look at this through a non-Western lens. Do they like it because it’s Western? Is it just a fad that young people are following? Will some still be doing it in ten years? I have no idea. It makes me really want to find Korean feminists and culture writers to follow.

    I remember one of my Korean friends telling me that she had so many “duties” to her in-laws now that she was married. I think that’s something that’s changing now out of necessity, not quite (or not only) feminism, because people are just having fewer children these days because of rising education costs.

    Haha, my students were so suspicious of the word “piggyback.” They wanted me to tell them an actual word for the concept, instead of just a phrase like “carry on one’s back.” But that’s all I had. They were pretty amused.

  • DSL Sharron

    I’m late to the discussion but as a Kenyan, I completely understand where you are coming from. But I hate to say that its not as easy as you put it. If you are from any part of Africa, making the decision not to include bride price in your marriage negotiations is almost impossible if you happen to be the bride-to-be. This is because its your family that has to present this proposal to the other side- not you! During marriage negotiations, the prospective bride and groom are silent. Their points-of-view are presented by relatives who they have appointed as representatives.

    The parents themselves face pressure from extended family members to carry out the wishes of the ‘tribe’ to the letter. I think African culture creates a situation where even if the parents are willing to take their daughter’s point-of-view about disallowing bride-price into consideration, they are faced with so many obstacles that they just accept it.

    For example, during my eldest sister’s marriage negotiations a few years ago, my then-wealthy parents said to the visitors from my brother-in-law’s village, “we are not selling our daughter to you, we merely want to form a deep and abiding friendship with you. So, whatever you choose to give, we will humbly accept.” My brother-in-law actually shed tears of relief because families of my tribe are known for making exorbitant demands in lieu of bride price (a car, 99 goats, bottles of champagne, imported sugar, a kraal for the cows at home, a new roof for the parents’ house, a borehole, a new house for their daughter etc.)

    Needless to say, my sister’s wedding was amazing, as there were no in-law related disagreements. Since then, the world has gone through a recession and my parents’ business was badly affected. My formerly accommodating mother began to pressurize me about “bringing someone”.I actually overheard my relatives say to my mother, “you let the other one (my older sister i.e.) go for almost nothing, do not make the same mistake with this one (me).”

    What my mother did not know was that I was dating a foreigner who had no idea about what bride price is. I was so scared that the demands made by my relatives would jeopardize our relationship, that I insisted to him that we should just appear before a judge to get married. The only reason why this did not devolve to a court case (instigated by my relatives) is because the Kenyan constitution recognizes all women above the age of 18 as adults who have the right to make their own choices. My experience definitely made me hate the custom of bride price. My own daughters will not have to deal with it.