Marriage rates are declining, and some sociologists fear that an entire generation is choosing to opt out of marriage. While there are many causes, from the financial and personal risk of divorce, to the fact that men can today receive any benefits a woman could offer him without marrying her, to the simple fact that virgin brides are in such scarce supply, one step that would go towards reinforcing a patriarchal family unit is to reinstitute the Dowry.
What is a dowry?
Dowry is money or property delivered to a husband by the bride’s family upon marriage. Typically, dowry would consist of real assets of hard value, including gold, silver, diamonds, property, or other valuables. Dowry was a custom practiced throughout the world in many cultures, and can be traced back to Biblical times (Genesis 31 tells the story of Jacob being deceived by Laban, who tricked him into marrying first one of his daughters, and then the other. Withholding the dowry he was due, Laban squandered the money on himself).
Dowry provides a safety net for women
One of the original purposes of a dowry was to provide for the woman in cases of death of the husband, divorce, or extreme cases of abuse. This was in a time where women could not legally hold property, with the exception of dowry. The dowry could revert back to the woman in certain circumstances, and the woman would have an insurance policy knowing that she was not totally and completely dependent on her husband.
Code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi, Babylonian law written in the 1750s BC, provides one of the earliest forms of written law in human history. Indeed, fully one third of this code details rules for marriage, divorce, inheritance, and sexuality. The code states: “If a woman quarrel with her husband, saying ‘You are not congenial to me’, the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house.”
While one must chuckle at the attempts to use logic and reason in dealing with female behaviors, this was nevertheless an early protection for women who were abused or abandoned.
The code further laid out rules, such that marriage was a contract, like any other sales contract, for the man and wife to be together, in exchange for the dowry. It was allowed that a husband could have sexual relations with a maid provided by the wife, and concubines were almost equal to wives, with the caveat that the first wife always had priority.
Men were also free to sire children by any of their slave girls, and these children would be free. (Perhaps the USA could have avoided the whole civil war if we relied on this rule, as importing of slaves was no longer allowed, and siring slave children who then became free is a far easier way of ending slavery).
The code, while primitive in some respects by today’s standards in requiring equivalent punishment fitting the crime “an eye for an eye,” was nevertheless more advanced and progressive in other ways than our laws today. Intent, for example, was of supreme importance, which would knock out the majority of the “regret rape” cases we hear about today–if a guy didn’t think he was raping a girl, and didn’t intend to violate her, it would be very difficult for her to prove that a sexual assault happened just because the woman later regretted the experience.
Dowry in the Roman Empire
Dowry was a part of almost every marriage, and was seen as the bride’s family’s contribution to the costs involved in setting up a new household, that the husband would now be expanding. Logically, we all know that we can live simpler, cheaper, and more frugally alone than with a woman, and ancient elders recognized the financial costs of bringing a woman into the household, with dowry being the assistance.
The dowry was a substantial financial burden, and often would be paid over a three-year period by the bride’s family. One cannot help but note the impact this would have on the father of the bride, and how seriously he would consider the vows to marriage and the importance of ensuring the virginity of his daughter.
Dowry in Europe
Dowry was practiced throughout Europe for much of its history until recently. In England, a marriage would be cancelled if the bride’s father failed to deliver the dowry. Rapists would be required to pay the dowry of a woman they violated, and if debts were unpaid, you went to debtors prison.
The Christmas story of Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas throwing gold into the stockings of three poor sisters in order to provide for their dowries. Remember the next time you see “stockings hung by the chimney with care” that this is a celebration of dowry.
Some of the larger dowries paid throughout history included the entire cities of Mumbai, India and Tangier, Morocco, which the Portuguese king offered as the dowry to King Charles II of Britain to marry his daughter. Dowry continued in many European societies, ending only recently. Greece outlawed dowry in 1983.
Dowry in the USA
Dowry existed both in native tribes and the American colonists. When Pocahontas married an English settler, she brought considerable land and assets as her dowry. When John Hull, mintmaster in Boston in the 1600s, gave his 18-year-old daughter in marriage, he paid her weight in silver to the groom. In the 1900s, dowry continued primarily among the wealthy, and American daughters who wished to marry aristocrats from Europe would be expected to deliver a large dowry.
Dowry in Asia
Dowry was practiced throughout many Asian societies. Ironically, while western nations began removing the custom of dowry, it only grew in acceptance in much of Asia. Today, dowry is relatively common in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Egypt, Morrocco, etc. As these nations have developed, and many southeast Asian men have obtained advanced training and skills, their families have demanded greater dowrys from brides who will share in the financial rewards of their husbands.
Practical reasons for the dowry
What are some reasons to bring back the dowry?
1. Recognition of the true costs of marriage
Dowry recognizes that the groom is taking on a financial (not to mention emotional) burden by taking a bride, and dowry attempts to level the playing field a bit.
2. A wiser use of dad’s money
The new family could start out with a nice nest egg, land to build a house on, assets, and cash, or they could just blow 20 grand on a crappy DJ and some overpriced dresses.
3. Reinforces the value of virginity
A dowry is a significant financial commitment, and a father would not risk the loss of this investment because his daughter was impure.
4. Clearly states the value of marriage
While this was more obvious in the past, when a woman would be more of a burden on her father or husband, a dowry recognizes that marriage is the end goal, because the father will have to keep supporting the daughter financially until she finds a husband.
5. Protects women in case of neglect, abandonment, or divorce
A dowry is an insurance policy for women who are in a truly bad marriage.
6. Discourages divorce
Women today can financially *benefit* from divorcing a husband, and there is no test of love or neglect required. A woman can divorce “Cause feelings” and find herself receiving a free income for life. In the case of dowry, a woman would forfeit her dowry, and have to pay again to a second husband if she attempted to divorce and remarry.
7. Feminists hate dowry
Finally, if feminists hate it, it must be good. Social media is full of anti-dowry propaganda. Considering that dowry was originally instituted as a protection for women who upheld their end of the marriage contract, one must be very suspicious of this opposition.
Indeed in several countries, men are threatened with imprisonment for taking part in this institution that is fundamentally a part of marriage itself. It’s a shame we don’t see any of the “defense of marriage” types rally to support dowry.