Marriage payments occur in many different forms throughout the world. They take many different forms and so it is rather difficult to give any general descriptions of how they work. However, speaking very broadly, two main contrasting types of payment stick out: bridewealth and dowry. In decades past, anthropologists, such as Nair and Mandelbaum, seem to have placed these two forms of property transmission at opposite ends of a scale.
In simple terms, bridewealth was seen as payment from the groom or his kin to the family of his wife, while a dowry was defined as a payment from the bride’s kin to the groom or his family. Each form of payment was seen as being representative of other values of the society: specifically, what worth was placed on women’s labour. It was thought that in societies where farming tools were basic (predominantly hoes) and land was freely available (such as in many parts of Africa), bridewealth was the more likely form of marriage payment, as there would be plenty of land for women to be put to productive work on.
Therefore, a bride-to-be’s family would desire compensation for the loss of a worker. In contrast to this, it was thought that in more densely populated regions, where land had more value and more efficient farming methods (i. e. ploughs) were used, dowries were more likely to be paid. This was because it was thought that women would have less of a productive role to play, as the men could handle all of the farm work, and so a husband would be paid to take on the economic liability of a woman.
As Goody points out, this is something of a black and white view, and the two systems cannot really be seen as being in strict opposition to one another, as ‘bridewealth does not go to the bride, but to her kin… ; it is wealth for, not to, the bride,’ while ‘dowry… does not go to her kin, but to the bride herself, sometimes to her husband (a least for safekeeping), or even to both spouses jointly’ (Goody, p6). The systems may be in contrast but they do not diametrically oppose one another.
Neither does it seem correct to say that marriage payments are purely reflections of a woman’s work value. For one thing, ‘Dowry can be seen as a type of pre-mortem inheritance to the bride’ (Goody, p1). If this is taken to be the case, then the father is not so much providing the groom with money to take away an unproductive female, as giving his daughter her due part of his estate at the time when she leaves the natal home to start a family of her own. Not all anthropologists accept this point.
Sharma is sceptical of the idea that dowry can legitimately be seen as a form of inheritance in the North Indian Hindu societies where she did her fieldwork, claiming that ‘dowry property is not women’s wealth, but wealth that goes with women’ (Sharma, p70). She does acknowledge that in certain cultures (i. e. in Greece) it may be accurate to see dowry as inheritance but disputes its applicability to Hindu society, despite the fact that Hindus themselves verbally subscribe to it.
She points out that ‘the dowry does not represent a fixed share of a particular divisible estate; the amount is fixed with reference to the state of the marriage market… and the bride’s family’s circumstances… at the time of marriage’ (Sharma, p70). Sharma is quite insistent that ‘dowry is not paid to the bride herself but to her husband’s family’ (Sharma, p70). She says that any property that moves with the bride will largely come under the control of her mother-in-law. While this may practically seem to be the case, one does wonder whether we simply see it this way due to ethnocentric blinkers, something Sharma herself touches on.
She mentions the conflict between the modern, western ‘individualistic notion of property’ and ‘the conventional ideology in North Indian society, (where) property accrues to the household as a corporate group rather than to individual persons’ (Sharma, p62). While the property may move out of the direct control of the bride, the attitude with which this happens seems open to debate. It may be that the mother-in-law simply takes advantage and seizes control. However, it could equally be the case that the property genuinely passes to the family as a unit.