A dowry is a payment in the form of money, goods or land made by the family of a woman to her husband-to-be or his family. This custom was popular in medieval and Renaissance Europe and in parts of south Asia and Africa. The practice is a feature of patrilineal cultures in which the woman, upon marriage, integrates into her husband's family, often living with them. In this sense the dowry was her contribution to her new family's finances.
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The Purpose of a Dowry
It falls to the family of the bride to pay the dowry as it has traditionally been a way to guarantee the protection and good treatment of the bride by her husband's family. Under these conditions, a dowry serves as a gift, with the condition that it be returned to the wife's family if her husband mistreats or abuses her in any way. The dowry was also designed to provide financial security or support for the woman in the event of her husband's death -- a form of inheritance.
What Makes a Dowry?
Money, land, livestock, precious metals and gems or jewellery are the traditional forms of payment used to make up a dowry. Contemporary dowry practices range from cars and domestic appliances to holidays and houses.
Modern Dowry Practices
The practice of giving dowries fell out of fashion in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The tradition remains part of the culture in some parts of Asia and Africa, even in cases where it has been made illegal, such as in India, which passed the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961 banning the payment and receipt of dowries. Although we don't think of it as a dowry, the idea that paying for the wedding is the responsibility of the bride's family is a tradition that has its roots in the practice of dowry giving. In China, the wedding list is also known as the "dowry list," with rich parents expected to contribute generously.
The Dark Side of the Dowry
The tradition of dowry giving has been linked to cases of abuse and murder in India, where the dowry system was outlawed in 1961. There is, however, still a rampant illegal market in dowries and allegations have been made that husbands have murdered their wives in order to be free to remarry and receive another dowry. A 2001 Indian Government statistics report linked the deaths of close to 7,000 women to dowry payment disputes.
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