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Rethinking lobola: The case ‘against’ custom

By Panashe Marufu

“If he doesn’t pay, he won’t respect you” — any woman hysterical enough to consider foregoing bride price is, more likely than not, familiar with some version of this warning. Honourable mentions go out to: “then why did we spend so much money on your education?”; “but you’re so beautiful!” and, the ever-popular, “so, you just want to . . . go?” These justifications all err in one glaring way: they base a woman’s inherent value as a human being on her perceived value as a marital partner.

Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi and Chief Justice Luke Malaba
Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi and Chief Justice Luke Malaba

The Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Ziyambi Ziyambi, on addressing The Sunday Mail regarding recent developments in customary marriage law in the past week, noted the “trend to commoditise or monetise the marriage relationship for marital gain.”

Undoubtedly, bride price (in its current exploitative iteration), certainly necessitated Government intervention. However, Government reasoning behind such an intervention is flawed insofar as it neglects to give proper consideration to the broader rights issue: the commodification of women themselves.

Press Zimbabweans on the significance of bride price and most will recite near-identical speeches extolling the tradition as a “show of respect”, a “token of appreciation” and a “unifier” for the two families. Noble though these virtues may be, and altruistic though they may seem, the tradition of bride price as a whole, particularly in reference to its transactional nature, begs reassessment.

Was bride price in fact rooted in such altruistic ideals as many claim, then it would be difficult to reconcile material gain (in its superficiality) as an absolute prerequisite to the sanctity of marriage. If altruistic ideals indeed formed the basis of bride price, then the emphasis would be on the good-faith union of the two families with little regard as to material gain.

Where altruistic ideals in fact ruled, bride price would not have taken on a transactional form thus limiting opportunity for exploitation. The transactional nature of bride price and the emphasis on the material gain as a prerequisite to marriage thus delegitimise its supposed altruistic ideals.

In truth, bride price’s true social underpinning — as evidenced by its transactional nature — is the objectification and commodification of women. As it stands, the transactional bride price serves as a social value system of sorts — arbitrarily assigning value to women based on archaic standards of desirability.

Although most would argue that such valuation does not represent the inherent human value of the woman as a whole, such an argument neglects to consider the considerable social clout which follows the payment of bride price.

In short, bride price seems to directly influence a woman’s social standing and estimation — attaching a woman’s value in society to her marital condition with little regard to her inherent worth as an individual.

As an aside — more problematically perhaps, are the consequences of a transactional bride price within the marital relationship itself. In the short term, transactional bride price in its exploitative form often results in financial hardship for the newly-wed couple where such resources might have been directed towards more profitable ventures or the acquisition of property.

In the long term, however, husbands often develop feelings of ownership over their wives as a consequence of the transactional nature of bride price. “I paid lobola — when I say ‘open’, she must open”, is but one statement (overheard in a local grocery store) that illustrates the wider problems a transactional bride price raises within the marital unit.

To touch more on the commodification of women, perhaps anecdotally, the transactional bride price has bred a generation of parents who (at least in part) may form decisions relating to the standard and level of education of their daughters based on her expected return value upon marriage.

In this case, girl children are often viewed as an investment, however, in contrast to boys, such investment is commodified in that it is directly predicated upon, and determined by, the prospect of returns upon marriage (upon a transactional bride price).

This is but a slight mutation of past practice, in which girl children were denied educational opportunities — or otherwise discriminated against — as a consequence of commodification in that an investment in girl children (prior to recent exploitative practices) did not yield the same return as boy children. Therefore, we have simply substituted one system of objectification for another.

It is also interesting to note, however, that some men view an omission of bride price as acquiring a “free” wife which may directly influence his feelings of respect towards her. Cases such as these only serve to illustrate how intimately linked a transactional bride price is to the perceived worth of a woman in Zimbabwe.

Of course, one would be remiss to disregard the role Zimbabwean women have played in their own undoing. Although women do in fact have a legal choice regarding the type of marriage to contract, social norms and familial pressure quickly erodes this choice.

Regardless, the majority of Zimbabwean women consider the payment of bride price to be a point of pride with little regard to consequence within the marital relationship or financial hardship in the wake of exorbitant charges. Such is the extent of female indoctrination — that we would celebrate our own subjugation.

Dare to raise such arguments against the transactional bride price, however, and they are likely to be simply dismissed as an affront to Zimbabwean or African culture — after all, how could one possibly argue against centuries-old practice?

Such is the convenience of culture as we have contrived it in the context of social change — it is often used as a tool to reprimand reason and rationality.

This “defence of culture”, particularly when raised in the context of women’s rights or socio-political reform, is intended as an inarguable catch-all response and serves as the ultimate dismissal thus discouraging discourse and maintaining the current social hierarchy.

In response to criticism, staunch proponents of the transactional bride price often raise this defence of culture. However, as with any defence, it is not without its vulnerabilities. Culture, as mistakenly understood by such advocates, is stagnant and unchanging and must be upheld in its “original” form.

However, take for example modern-day Christianity — our pre-colonial history was coloured by certain traditional African beliefs which formed an intrinsic part of our culture — beliefs which have been largely discarded in favour of a Western import. In truth, culture does not dictate the beliefs or practices of its adherents but is determined by it.

As such, culture is but a reflection of the present beliefs and practices of its people and is indeed susceptible to change — it can neither be defined by nor bound within the confines of past practice. Thus, the preservation of a transactional bride price cannot be justified on the basis of culture — doing so would not only denounce the validity of present practices divergent from their original form but also deny our ability to evolve or develop new belief systems as a people.

In light of this apparently dynamic nature of culture however, it is worth unpacking why certain customs such as bride price have been largely resistant to change. Where beliefs or practices stagnate, they often do so not necessarily because they hold true or because they bear any intrinsic value, but because they maintain the status quo ante (the existing social hierarchy) which often serves those already in power.

In the case of the transactional bride price, the status quo ante exalts men, and, in the context of patriarchal societies, it is within the best interests of men to preserve the system that favours them. This can be likened to race relations — the doctrine of black inferiority perseveres, not necessarily because the theory holds true, but because it maintains the social dominance of whites (those already in power).

Notably, the primary utility of the transactional bride price in modern times is the maintenance of a social order which appoints men as the custodians of women. Indeed, one may be tempted to sum up bride price quite simply as the transfer of a woman and her reproductive rights from one man (often her father or other male relatives) to another (her husband) — a change in ownership commonly symbolised by the woman’s changed surname from that of her father to that of her husband. Social stagnancy, in this case, is thus indicative of a stagnant belief system.

Simply put, our practices reflect our beliefs; and one cannot expect our practices to change if our beliefs do not. The commodification of women and girls in Zimbabwe is representative of our present belief system in relation to a woman’s place in society despite an apparent push towards gender equality in our legal system.

It is possible, however, that the recent developments in customary marriage law, in combination with the current economic climate, an increase in global feminist sensibilities, and the gradual Westernisation of our youth, may have the unintended consequence of eventually normalising the omission of bride price entirely.

With this in mind, in view of preserving some semblance of the traditional bride price (though free of its transactional and commodifying form), it would be apt to promote the more altruistic ideals of bride price and develop practices which place emphasis on the union of the two families and celebrates the new household. Sunday News