An op-ed on how payment of bride price turns women into commodities provided welcome respite from the endless sexism in Uganda’s mainstream media. While I generally agree with the writer, payment of bride price in itself isn’t what turns women into commodities. Rather, in a society where women are seen as commodities, bride price is just one of many cultural practices emblematic of a ridiculous notion.
Obviously the need to pay is taxing on men, as it is for anyone buying a good or service. In a hard-pressed economy, the pressures are more constrictive and likely to create discord for those who fail to deliver what is owed, be they women or men. Marital frustrations on the back of bride price debt could partly explain why in a recent UN survey across 37 African countries, Uganda was in the lead with 60% of Ugandan men considering beating their wives a ‘necessary’ aspect of marriage, while a similar percentage of women think themselves deserving of a beating. Neither the air we breathe, nor the food we eat could have led us to this warped level of odious beliefs. Nevertheless, they are evidence of a culture accepting of violence against women. And with practices like bride price, it is the woman received in exchange who pays the ultimate price for this innocent-seeming giving of gifts.
Yet often, culturalized human-to-commodity metamorphosis of females not only manifested in customary exchanges between men, but in the reality of women’s status in society, is brushed off; bride price touted as a good, traditional practice. Some claim it is paid to show appreciation; another equated it to a ‘tip’ offered in addition to payment for a meal. These views are neck-deep in paternalism; further expose the lower rank of women in a male-dominated society, and importantly, fail to deliver a non-sexist reason as to why this gratitude isn’t also shown by women for men. It is there that we find the woman-commodifying ideals celebrated as unique, valuable aspects of African culture.
But there is nothing uniquely Ugandan in the practice of men
pimping “giving away” their daughters and sisters to other men in the name of marriage, nor in man-as-prize and woman-as-property ideology. Brides are walked down aisles to their new owners in Kampala, Cambridge, Calcutta, and California. Romanticizing bride price needs to be seen for what it is: a ruse to mask its significance as one of the markers of man’s assumed lordship over woman, in marriage, and in every other socio-political institution for that matter. We should at least be frank about that, if only for the sake of honest discussion.
Our honest selves would acknowledge that the dehumanisation of women permeates myriad settings and cultures wherein the female body is objectified and violated in the day-to-day. Take the recent case in Ireland where a woman impregnated by a rapist was denied access to health-care, specifically, an abortion. As per interpretation of Irish law, the right to life of the foetus took precedence over her needs. In addition to the mental and physical suffering from sexual assault, she was placed under confinement and forced feeding, culminating in delivery. Being female, she had no right to deny the seed of the man who raped her from growing off her body – her trauma now in flesh. Whereas the rapist walked away from his crime, most likely unscathed as many of them do, she carries brutal lifelong reminders.
Such a horrific conclusion can only be seen as moral and justified in a society where women are valued only to the extent to which their bodies serve men and the wider good. Her right to self-determination was of little to no significance within and outside the law; first the rapist violated her by exercising his (perceived) right to her body, and then her personhood is dismissed for the ‘higher duty’ of woman as womb. Justice may not have been dealt to the rapist. His offspring will get it, the state will see to it. But for sure it will not be afforded to woman for whom, regardless of circumstances, child-bearing is the raison d’être.
The injustice is replicated in laws like the Mozambique one which exonerates a rapist if he marries a woman he raped. That a man’s crime can be written off because a woman’s status has been ‘raised’ to property of the miscreant who violated her (thus awarding him, in retrospect, the right to do so) underlines the position of women in a woman-hating society: commodities whose worth is in the value men can make of them.
Similar dynamics are in force when a man opts to ‘try elsewhere’ for a boy child; essentially taking advantage of his (perceived) male right to find another uterus in which to play reproductive lottery. Such recourse would be considered unbecoming of the wife – who is usually blamed for a couple’s seeming inability to conceive children of a preferred sex. Which is just as well since her duty, with bride price firmly in dad’s tummy, is to fulfill her husband’s physical/biological demands.
This normalization of men’s right to women’s bodies must be seen for its role in many societal ills. According to the World Bank, women between 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria. In Uganda, the high incidences of different manifestations of male violence against girls and women indicate a society which views female bodies as objects to be beaten/raped/bought and used for sex; enforced by cultural practices which naturalize inequality between the sexes. That women too can be violent doesn’t negate the fact that gender violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.
Meanwhile in India, the rule of male over female rages on like a cancer. The long-outlawed dowry system, characterized by a bride’s family ‘gifting’ a prospective groom and his family in exchange for the honor of having him as their son-in-law, still thrives. Dowry institutionalized the hatred of femaleness in that land of ancient goddesses; spawning female infanticide, poor investment in the girl child, rape, bride burning, and death – one woman killed every hour over dowry.
Like dowry, payment of bride price presupposes the inferiority of women to men. It establishes wives at commodity level; subordinate to husbands, and supposedly privileged to be in service to them. It relegates women to the same category as slaves bought to perform field labour, or a heifer added to a kraal for reproductive labour. The analogy may not be representative of the intentions of a 21st century African man when he is paying bride price. But good intentions don’t change the fact that commodities are given in exchange for the reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour expected of a wife.
The individual woman’s favorable view of bride price doesn’t attenuate its legitimation of the commodification of women into human objects that are exchangeable between men in return for material objects.
Men’s favorable view of the practice is expected because it is for their benefit; as fathers who receive goods/animals/money, as husbands who receive wives, and as future fathers expecting a ‘return’ through their own daughters. They also get to retain a position of superiority and ownership over women.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that men are major advocates for bride price as a “woman-valuing” tradition.
In that tradition, women will remain treated as lesser human-beings for as long as the bedrock of our society, the family, is built upon customs cemented with the bartering of ‘things’ for female life and labour.
Aiming for so-called ‘gender equality’ without striving to dismantle the cultural practices keeping inequality alive maintains the pillars of the mindless belief that to be female is to belong to an inferior caste, and women are, thereby, living commodities existing to be in service to everyone except themselves.
This nonsense must end. Starting with bride price.