What you need to know:
- When Hussein Charo from Tana River County asked for only Sh7 as bride price in December last year, he did not only baffle his guests, he also scaled national news.
- From a gender perspective, bride-price is a patriarchal relic that subjugates women.
- In some communities, women are subjected to insults insinuating that their level of intelligence is equal to that of the animals paid for them!
When Hussein Charo from Tana River County asked for only Sh7 as bride price in December last year, he did not only baffle his guests, he also scaled national news because the action defied popular practice of turning such occasions into income-generating activities.
This was the second time Charo acted “strangely”. When his first daughter got married, he asked only for prayer beads, saying he was more interested in his son-in-law’s integrity than wealth.
This behaviour raises questions about bride price. Why do we consider it mandatory? How does it affect the status of women relative to men in marriage? What is women’s say about it? How much is reasonable and how much is not? Who is the primary beneficiary?
The consideration takes the form of livestock, money, foodstuff, utensils, other material items and even labour, depending on the community. Two scholars, John S. Mbiti and Isaac Osabutey-Aguedze, aver that bride price was traditionally to cement inter-familial relationships, express gratitude for the girl’s upbringing, ‘compensate’ for the transferred labour, demonstrate the man’s willingness to enter into a marriage and signal his ability to take care of the wife and prospective children. The gifts were reminders of the maiden’s physical absence and signified her value to the maiden and marital families.
No one should begrudge individuals from continuing with the practice as the Constitution of Kenya embeds the right to one’s culture. The Marriage Act (2014) also recognises the practice but requires it to be only a token to formalise customary unions.
From a gender perspective, bride-price is a patriarchal relic that subjugates women. In the first instance, the negotiations are male affairs even though the subject matter is a woman.
In fact, the bride does not even share in the payment or have a say on how it is used. In the second, men paying it (some under duress) wait to recover their pound of flesh through dominance over their wives citing the power assigned to them by the bride price. This is evident in cases where men count their wives as part of their property.
In some communities, women are subjected to insults insinuating that their level of intelligence is equal to that of the animals paid for them! Also, the understanding that the bride price is recovered should the marriage break down puts pressure on women to tolerate dysfunctional unions to protect the parents from the imminent loss.
Bride price has today become so steep, it is basically a captive wealth generating activity for the bride’s family, technically the paternal side, and a burdensome tax on men. In many cases, the price is based on the bride’s level of formal education and career. The higher the two, the more the expectation, as evident in the October 2019 case in Meru where a man demanded Sh1 million, to the chagrin of the Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders, which in turn vowed to draft a law standardising the payment in their area of jurisdiction.
An anecdote from one nuptial experience has it that a medical doctor went to pay bride price for his partner, also a doctor. But the father-in-law made it clear that the amount paid was not commensurate with his daughter’s status. The groom apologised but gave his father-in-law a piece of poetic justice. He asked him to replace her with one equivalent to his means!
Simply put, placing a price on a bride commercialises marriage, objectifies women and transforms them into wares for sale, in the same way as done in ancient Russia where they were called Kunka, derived from Kuna (marten), the currency of payment.
A cursory look reveals that nuptial ceremonies today are more of exhibitions of financial, material and vehicular grandeur than anything else. This is evident in comments equating success with the number of guests and expensive cars in attendance. This not only puts pressure on men, it also diverts attention from the primary purpose of marriage.
From the deep entrenchment of the practice, any suggestion to outlaw it would be opposed by both men and women, the former because this would disrobe them of power and the latter because it is probably the only expression of appreciation they and their parents are assured of.
Mr Charo’s action, comical as it looks, is a reminder that we should re-examine bride price in light of gender equality. Standardising the payment might appear like interference with personal choice.
However, it will return some sanity and redeem the practice from the financially draining monster it has become. It is also time we replaced the term ‘bride price’ with ‘gifts’ to remove the commercial connotation. The Njuri Ncheke also owes us an update on the draft law.
The writer is an international gender and development consultant and scholar. [email protected]