Dowry and Bride Price Are Not the Same Thing
An old song randomly came up on my iPhone the other day that brought my attention to an extremely common mistake, one I have heard repeated even by those who should know better: the idea of a “dowry” as a price paid by the bridegroom (groom/husband to be) in order to acquire his wife. This error can lead alternately to a misunderstanding of older cultures as overly misogynistic (“buying” women like chattel) or to romantic notions of an older time when all husbands-to-be would purchase their brides at great price, with the parents overseeing the transaction. The lyrics were as follows (from the perspective of the bride)
Like the color that comes creeping to my face
It is such sweet embarrassment to see the dowry that you paid for my cold embrace
As stated above, the problem is that the song confuses the dowry with a wholly other concept and transaction—that of the bride price. This is an easy mistake to make, given that Westerners no longer practice either transactional tradition; most folks today think that men “bought” their wives in the past but that we’ve gotten beyond such patriarchal and misogynistic practices. Popular though it may be, this conception is quite simply false.
**Now I’m not suggesting that women have never been purchased or treated as chattel; unfortunately, that still happens (and with shocking frequency) today. What I am suggesting, however, is that most of the actual legal paradigms we find from the ancient world put things like the bride price and the dowry into place as protection for women, to ensure that they were taken care of rather than taken advantage of. (And yes, I just dangled two prepositions. So shoot me. It’s an artificial grammatical rule that doesn’t work for English anyway.) And before anyone protests, there is no question that women have always needed (and continue to need) special legal status and protection—the simple fact that women can get pregnant and men can’t puts women in a far more vulnerable social position than men. It’s an unavoidable biological reality, so any cries for “equal treatment” or resistance of such legal “favoritism” are simply the result of willful ignorance. But any suggestion that past civilizations were systemically misogynistic and hostile towards women but that we have grown past such things is wrong on both counts. In reality, most societies of the past typically did their best to protect female citizens, and modern society—for all its best efforts—has most certainly not eliminated major (and large-scale) abuses of women (as the link above makes painfully clear).**
Before I continue, I should also add the disclaimer that these practices have by no means been universal or uniform across cultures throughout history. Some cultures have practiced one and not the other, many cultures have practiced both, and some (like today) practice neither. This post merely seeks to show the difference between the two and address a few issues related to each.