Discuss with reference to ethnographic examples
In this case, our society’s strongly individualistic notion of property may simply prevent us from understanding a communally minded form of decision making and control. Goody also points out that bridewealth may well be paid to acquire something quite different from simply another worker. Referring specifically to Abrahams’ study of the Nyamwezi of Tanzania, where there are ‘legitimate forms of marriage with and without bridewealth’ (Goody, p16), Goody argues that what the husband is actually paying for is ‘the allocation of both uxorial and genetricial rights’ (Goody, p16).
This means that the husband is basically securing his ties to his family, ensuring that he in turn is entitled to bridewealth from his daughters’ husbands-to-be and support from his sons in his old age. As bridewealth normally has to be repaid in the event of the premature dissolution of a marriage, the husband is also strengthening his marital relationship with his payment. ‘High returnable payments…
Lead to a pressure on a woman (from her natal family) to remain a wife rather than return to live as a sister’ (Goody, p12), whereas ‘non-bridewealth marriage means les conjugal, more consanguineal control over the bride, and is hence associated with less enduring marriage (higher divorce rates) and with less compensation in the case of adultery’ (Goody, p17). This seems to show that although the work value of a woman may indeed be a consideration for a potential husband, it is only one of a multiple number of reasons for paying a bridewealth.
Sharma also considers what truth there is to the idea that marriage payments are simply reflections of females’ work value. With reference to her studies in North India, Sharma notes that ‘it is true that bridewealth occurs mainly amongst the low castes and tribal communities where the female members of the household are very likely to work outside the home for a wage’ and that ‘the highest dowries are usually paid in groups where women have traditionally been least likely to make substantial contributions to family income’ (Sharma, p67).
This does initially seem to be in line with the ideas of anthropologists such as Nair and Mandelbaum. However, Sharma goes on to argue that this is actually just the surface of the situation and that, on deeper investigation, there are many exceptions to this rule which such theories simply do not explain. Sharma points out that the situation is currently changing. ‘Dowry is increasingly adopted by low castes and impoverished groups who formerly paid bridewealth, but the shift to dowry does not always seem to be related to any withdrawal of women from productive labour’ (Sharma, p67).
One possible reason for this shift may be the desire of the lower castes to emulate those of higher social status, attempting to raise themselves in society by adopting the habits of higher castes. It is also noted that ‘among high status groups who pay dowry, some educated women have begun to earn wages in professional and skilled occupations…. But this change is not accompanied by any substantial attrition of the institution of dowry, let alone a shift to bridewealth’ (Sharma, p67).
Considering this fact, it seems fairly likely that more women have started to seek employment due to the westernisation of the world and the modern idea that women can seek employment and support themselves. However, living in a society that maintains a caste system and still places great emphasis on this, it would be very unlikely that families would wish to seemingly degrade themselves by adopting the lower-caste custom of bridewealth payments instead of dowries.
Unnithan-Kumar also mentions the fact that ‘sometimes even dowry and brideprice transactions may occur simultaneously in a single marriage arrangement, (such as) among the Lewa Patels of Nandol (Goody and Goody 1990), (where) brides received both a dowry from their own father as well as an indirect endowment from their father-in-law’ (Unnithan-Kumar, p193). Situations such as this one are difficult to reconcile with the idea that marriage payments are purely reflections of a woman’s ability to work and strongly imply that there are also other issues involved.
Unnithan-Kumar casts further doubt on the relationship between marriage payments and the work value of women. Studying the low-caste Taivar Girasia in India, she observes that they ‘view brideprice not so much as recognition of a woman’s contribution to the household nor as payment for the loss of a productive member, but as a compensation to the father and his agnatic group for the past expenditure on her maintenance, particularly consumption of food’ (Unnithan-Kumar, p196). The distinction here, quite fine but nonetheless important, seems to be one of attitude. There seems no question that the brideprice is a form of economic compensation.
What is to be noted is that the fathers seem quite grudging of their daughters rather than appreciative of them; it is not that they will miss their contribution or presence, but that they resent having put such effort into someone who will go on to work in another’s house. Unnithan-Kumar further claims that ‘Although valued in practical terms, the labour of Girasia women is devalued in ideological, prestige-related terms, and brideprice is not regarded as reflecting the important contribution which women make to production or reproduction’ (Unnithan-Kumar, p205).
In the eyes of the males, the fact that these lower-caste women will be willing to work to earn their keep does not seem to make them any of less of a ‘necessary liability’ than their higher-caste counterparts. This leads Unnithan-Kumar to conclude ‘that Girasia brideprice transactions are similar in function and meaning, if not in form, to the dowry payments in the region’ (Unnithan-Kumar, p189), both sharing ‘a similar concern with a patrilineally-informed, prestige-related caste ideology’ (Unnithan-Kumar, p214).
From the study of several accounts, it seems evident that while women’s work value is important to their families, both natal and marital, the equation between marriage payments and productivity is unfounded. While it certainly seems to be an issue, it does not seem to be more central than several others and is often played down by the actors. Indeed, to see things in such simplistic terms, while it may at first appear ‘clean’ and ‘neat,’ is not only evidence of an unrealistic attitude, but also a naively reductionistic one. Human motivations are rarely so simple, so black and white.
Levi-Strauss may have argued that marriage was the most basic form of human exchange but there is almost always a huge multitude of varying factors to bear in mind when considering people’s reasons for acting in any way.
Bibliography: Goody, J. , 1973, Bridewealth and Dowry in Africa and Eurasia. In Goody, J. ; S. Tambiah, Bridewealth and Dowry, Cambridge University Press. Sharma, U. , 1984, Dowry in India: Its Consequences for Women. In R. Hirschon (ed. ) Women and Property, Women as Property, St. Martin’s Press. Unnithan-Kumar, M. , 1997, Girasia Brideprice and the Politics of Marriage Payments. In Identity, Gender and Poverty.