YOLA, NIGERIA - The widespread African tradition of giving cash and gifts to a bride’s family before marriage, known as a “bride price,” critics say degrades women by putting a monetary value on a wife. A recent case in Nigeria ended in suicide, underscoring the financial pressure. But, supporters of the bride price tradition uphold it as a cherished cultural and religious symbol of marriage.
Saadatu Ahmed Manga is having a dye called lalle, or henna, painted on her body because she’s about to get married. The bride and her friends are getting ready.
She says they went to the hairdresser, and now they are doing lalle. For every wedding, the bride does lalle. Lalle is a dye made of plants. It’s painted on the body in patterns that resemble flowers or shapes.
It’s part of the wedding custom in northern Nigeria, which is largely influenced by Islam.
But the most important marriage custom is the bride price, a payment of cash that the fiancé gives to the bride’s family to show how serious he is about the marriage.
Manga’s fiancé will make a cash payment to her family.
In Islam, the bride price has to be paid before the wedding, she says. Bride price started since the days of the prophet, Muhammed, may peace be upon him, and we continue it, she says.
But more Nigerians are condemning the bride price custom as a degrading practice that requires payment for marriage and places a monetary value on women.
Women are largely left out of determining the bride price, which is negotiated between the male relatives of the bride and groom.
Defenders and critics
Yet, many Nigerians defend the tradition.
One man says, dowry is something God has made compulsory.
Another says, it is not selling her. It is not degrading. It is increasing her honor.
Critical voices can be heard across Africa, including those of scholars, women’s rights activists and artists.
In October, Nigerian media outlets reported the death of a 17-year-old girl in northern Nigeria who set herself on fire because her boyfriend could not afford the bride price. The dowry was 17,000 naira. That’s less than $50 in U.S. dollars.
Marriage and relationship counselor Fiyabina Penuel says the tragedy could have been avoided. She says the pride price custom is being abused.
“Initially, this issue of dowry and bride price was more like a pleasantry being exchanged between the husband-to-be and the in-laws-to-be. When it all started, in most cultures it was little things that everyone can afford. But as time goes on it became so big that most people cannot be able to afford it. So it’s like business and using it to put people in classes,” Penuel said.
A symbol of love
But African literature scholar, Dr. Agatha Ukata, blames radical feminist ideology for the rising criticism of bride price. She also says the tradition is misunderstood by the Western world.
“The Western world, they have this cultural shock because it is not in their culture to have bride price and so that’s why they look at bride price and they’re imagining, ‘Why do you have to buy a woman?’ The concept of bride price, on its own, it’s not buying somebody. It is just a symbol of love,” Ukata said.
When it’s finally time for Saadatu’s wedding. She walks among a lively crowd, her face covered by a heavy veil. Once seated, the groom’s family members drop money in a box and then ask her to lift the veil so they can see her.
When it’s all done, the crowd burst into applause. She waves the bride price in the air to show it has been paid.
Now, she can confidently call herself a wife.