Women’s property rights are inextricably linked to a fundamental social institution: marriage. In long-reigning patriarchal societies, like China and India, the economic and cultural aspects of marriage have long favoured men over women. However, there is one surprising difference. While dowry norms dictate that a bride’s family must transfer money/property to the groom’s family in India, bride prices require grooms to pay for brides in China.
Why have these two similarly patriarchal societies evolved contrasting systems of marital payments? What is the impact of these practices on women’s property rights?
Evolution of Marital Payment Systems: Bride Price & Dowry
Marital payments have been extensively examined by social scientists due to their implications on women’s welfare and distribution of wealth.
Bride prices are prevalent in rural, primitive societies, in which women play a significant role in agricultural production (1).
Bride prices allow the bride’s family to be compensated for their loss of a productive agricultural input.
In contrast, dowry is common in societies with complex social stratification where women do not play a major role in economic activity, and men have greater economic opportunities.
Variance in earning potential creates heterogeneity among men, while women remain relatively homogenous. Thus, brides compete to secure grooms of greater ‘quality’ or economic value by offering dowry.
The cases of India and China appear to be largely consistent with these theories. Despite differences today, it is important to note that, in the past, bride price and dowry have co-existed in both societies.
Regional Divide In India Over Marital Payments: How North & South Differ
In the last century, a regional divide characterised the custom of marriage transactions within India: dowry was common in the North, while bride prices prevailed in the South. This could be explained by considerations of social class in marriage (1).
In northern India, marriages were hypergamous, wherein women married into the same or a superior clan.
Thus, bride-givers paid dowry to bride-takers as compensation for the elevated social status.
In the South, however, marriages typically happened between brides and grooms of equal status, due to greater socio-economic homogeneity between men and women, and within castes (2).
Bride-prices were paid to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of labour. Over time, men were given greater economic opportunities than women in the South. Thus, increasing income inequality between men and women resulted in a shift toward dowry. This transition has also been attributed to a ‘marriage squeeze’, or an imbalance in the ratio of marriageable men to women (3).
Improvements in child and maternal health in the 1900s led to declines in mortality and an expansion of younger cohorts (3). As women typically married at a younger age, these changes affected women first. Health improvements also meant wives lived longer and the market for re-marriage shrunk. Due to these demographic changes, younger, marriageable women outnumbered eligible, older men, and dowry was used by brides to compete for grooms.
How China Shuttled Between Bride Price & Dowry
Transitions between bride prices and dowry have also occurred in China. The prevalence of bride prices in the past was linked to the relatively high participation of women in agriculture (1). Polygyny was also permitted in historical China, which implies a high demand for women in the marriage market and could explain why bride prices existed.
Bride prices were dominant in China’s history, but there were times when dowry was popular as well. For example, in the Song dynasty (960-1279), the law stipulated that dowry must be at least half of the bride-price received.
Due to a highly commercialised society in the Song dynasty, a more complex social order was developed and the dowry amount was often higher than the bride price.
In contemporary China, bride price dominates marriage negotiations and the expectation on the amount of bride-price has increased dramatically.
The reasons behind this trend is complex. A relative scarcity of brides is an important factor determining the dominant role of the bride price norm in contemporary China. In 2005, men under the age of 20 exceeded women by more than 32 million (4). The rapid economic development in China has also increased the expectation of the amount of the ‘bride price’.
How Do Marital Payments Influence Property Rights Of Women?
Marital payments are closely linked to women’s property rights. In China, the bride price culture requires the groom to present property as a prerequisite for marriage. Thus, Chinese parents would typically purchase family homes only for sons but not for daughters. This has important implications in contemporary China.
Prior to 2011, the ownership of marital property was shared between the husband and the wife, and would be divided in favour of women and children upon divorce. However, in 2011, the Chinese Supreme court ruled that marital property belongs to the registered buyer upon divorce, who is typically the husband.
Yale sociologist Emma Zang, one of the authors of this article, examined the impact of this 2011 ruling (5). She finds that the reform initially led to the diminished well-being of women. It reduced their bargaining power, forcing many to stay in unhappy marriages, and causing women to spend more time on housework. These adverse effects were weakened over time, as couples resorted to adaptive behaviours in line with the Chinese tradition of sharing marital property such as transferring ownership to their children. However, women’s housework hours remained higher than before.
Studies suggest that dowry also negatively impacts women’s property rights. At first, dowry appears to be an opportunity to transfer property to daughters and is often viewed as ‘pre-mortem inheritance’ (6). However, dowry and inheritance are fundamentally different because dowry transfers are typically absorbed by husbands’ families rather than adding on to women’s wealth (7).
Despite the Dowry Prohibition Act (1961), dowries are prevalent and increasing in size in contemporary India (1,3).
Do Either Dowry Or Bride Price ‘Benefit’ Women? Which System Is ‘Better’?
It is unclear whether dowry or bride prices are ‘better’ for women’s welfare. The cases of India and China suggest that both have pernicious effects on women’s property rights. Importantly, the experience of these nations suggests that legal action cannot combat the evils of bride prices/dowries alone.
Patriarchal norms and demographic factors which shape the evolution and sustenance of marital payment systems must be addressed in order to release women from the shackles of these practices.
Policies regulating marital payments must be evaluated and re-designed keeping the social context in mind.
Anderson SJJoEP. The economics of dowry and brideprice. 2007;21(4):151-174.
Caldwell JC, Reddy PH, Caldwell PJPs. The causes of marriage change in South India. 1983;37(3):343-361.
Bhat PM, Halli SSJPS. Demography of brideprice and dowry: Causes and consequences of the Indian marriage squeeze. 1999;53(2):129-148.
Zhu WX, Lu L, Hesketh T. China’s excess males, sex selective abortion, and one child policy: analysis of data from 2005 national intercensus survey. 2009;338:b1211.
Zang E. When Family Property Becomes Individual Property: Intrahousehold Property Ownership and Women's Well‐Being in China. Journal of Marriage Family. 2020.
Goody J, Goody JR, Goody JR, Tambiah S. Bridewealth and dowry. CUP Archive; 1973.
McCreery JLJE. Women's property rights and dowry in China and South Asia. 1976;15(2):163-174.
[Emma Zang is Asst Professor, Department of Sociology, Yale University, USA. She received her PhD in Public Policy and MA in Economics – both from Duke University. Her work has appeared in major social science and public health journals, and her research has been reported by major media outlets in the United States and in China, such as CNN, the Boston Globe, The Economist, and ThePaper.cn.
Drishti Baid is a social scientist in training with a keen interest in long-term health and socioeconomic inequality. She currently works as a Research Assistant at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, where she supports ongoing research on chronic disease prevention and patients’ end-of-life experience.
Harleen Kaur is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Yale College, USA. She is studying Economics and Mathematics, and wishes to pursue graduate study in Economics. She is currently working as an intern for the Observer Research Foundation in India, where she is conducting gender-related research.]
(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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