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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.