Bryan Caplan  

Should Feminists Favor the Abolition of Dowries?

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Political Beliefs and Self-Dec... Notes on Critical Review

According to an engrossing biography of a Saudi princess I was reading, the Saudi government has imposed price controls on dowries. In the Saudi context, this means that the amount of money that men pay the family of the bride is capped at abount 1/3 of its market-clearing value. The princess - a staunch feminist, at least by Saudi standards - sees this as too little, too late. She wants a complete ban - a price cap of $0.

Would an economically literate feminist want to impose this price control? If dowries were the personal property of the bride, clearly not. But what if it's her parents who keep the dowry? Then at first glance, the Saudi princess' prescription makes sense. If all men are equally unlucrative for the bride's parents, then they have no financial reason to make her marry a rich, old goat instead of the dashing young man she loves.

But on second thought, this is way too optimistic. Price controls spark all kinds of non-price competition. If the real sellers are the parents, banning dowries just spurs suitors to figure out sneakier ways to please parents at daughters' expense. If you can't offer cash to your future in-laws, you can offer them sweetheart business deals or interest-free loans. In fact, since this is Saudi Arabia, a suitor could offer - as an Nth wife - the hand of his daughter to the father of the girl he wants to marry.

The sad truth is that banning cash dowries is unlikely to make girls happier with their husbands. The main effect, instead, is just to change the way that suitors win over their future in-laws - with some deadweight loss thrown into the mix.

So what should an economically literate Saudi feminist be hoping for? Rather than trying to shut down the marriage market, she should focus on property rights. When parents own their daughters, competition spurs men to make those parents happy. If daughters instead owned themselves, competition would spur men to make prospective wives happy instead. Women would still face a temptation to marry an old goat for his money - as they do in every country - but they would have an incentive to balance pecuniary and non-pecuniary concerns - not sell themselves to the highest bidder.

In short, don't blame markets for the plight of Saudi women. Blame their parents - and the policies that keep them in the driver's seat.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Stephen Gordon writes:

In the Saudi context, this means that the amount of money that men pay the family of the bride is capped at abount 1/3 of its market-clearing value.


My understanding of dowries was that the bride's family paid the groom's family. Do things work differently in Saudi Arabia?

tom s. writes:

I think Stephen Gordon is right. At least, the Explore Saudi Arabia web site says that "A dowry is payment made by the bride’s family to the groom’s family, for taking their daughter in marriage"

Kaveh Pourvand writes:

Dr Caplan,

Great analysis. A query came to my mind as I was reading the entry. To my knowledge, Saudi Arabia has a strong mixture of social/cultural and legal barriers to female self ownership. However, what if the barriers are just social cultural? is government intervention justified ?

Hood Bradford writes:

From a purely canonical legal view of the bride-purse in Islamic Law, it is the property of the bride and no one else.
Culture in the KSA and many other Muslim countries has basically made the parents or brothers a main factor (almost a broker) in deciding the amount of the bride-purse, and as such they usually add their cut into the agreed amount.

Your analysis is interesting, especially the part about non-price competition. Basically how this pans out in the KSA is that the bridal home is lavishly furnished, property is transferred to the brides name, or other kickbacks are given to the family (realized or potential).

In fact, because of the high salaries of Saudi women (who work as teachers and admin positions) many people are not willing to give away their daughter in marriage, as that would cut off the cash cow of their daughters/sisters salary that they milk monthly. Unless the suitor can really make it worth while, they generally do not allow them to marry, causing a myriad of problems such as late-marriage, debt, and general dissatisfaction when marriage is realized.

The footnote defining what a dowry is as applied to Islamic law is wrong. There is no dowry (given by the bride's family to the groom) legislated in Islamic law. There is the bride-purse (given by the groom to the bride) and is a condition for the marriage to be legally binding.

Confusion of the two by Muslims translating into the english language is usually a case of "lost in translation".

Amir writes:

Under Saudi and Islamic law, the groom agrees to offer mahr (dowrie) to the girl (not her family). This may be cash but it may also include non-cash elements such as gold or a particular holiday. It is a condition of the marriage contract and must therefore be met. This is in contrast to the way in which dowries work in some other communities, such as with some Hindu Indians, where the girl's family pays it to the groom.

jaim klein writes:

Caplan got the right idea, but mocher as no dowrie. In traditional Bedu society, a virgin is a tradable valuable, which normally is exchanged for another virgin. (I mean virgin, because non-virgins dishonour the family and are executed). She can be also traded for a political alliance (Old Goat Saud's harem grew at the rate of his conquests. Military conquests, of course). In no sense there is a monetary market for virgins as there is for slave girls, and Western travellers see and understand what they want and not what it is. Even the Bedu came to understand Western psychology, and for example, when in Sinai, I got offers for my daughter and we we haggled about the number and age and qualities of the camel I would receive, because that is the polite to do here. Only when I was offered a sister the conversation started to be serious. By the way, the form of Jewish marriages is also a business transaction, and the "ketubah" is a sales document stating how much "zuzim" was paid and how much has to be repaid in case the marriage fails and is dissolved. The ancient coin of "zuzim" has been out of circulation for so long that no one knows its exchange rate. The Saudi girl in question is writing for a Western audience who is eager to hear about Mercedeses exchanged for wives, but that's fantasy. Saudis are an extreemely religious and moral people.

Barkley Rosser writes:

The first couple of commentators are right. Dowry is paid to the groom's family; bride price (or purse) is paid to the bride's family (or to the bride). It would be useful if the generally intelligent and informed discussion here kept this straight, please.

twicebitten writes:

C'mon. You end with a plea for parents to allow their adult children more control over their lives but then you say you're against a policy that lowers the profitability of buying and selling of children.

Should we have just waited for people who engaged in the buying and selling of slaves to just change their attitudes rather than to have chosen policies that effectively brought the price down to zero?

Hood Bradford writes:

From a purely canonical legal view of the bride-purse in Islamic Law, it is the property of the bride and no one else.
Culture in the KSA and many other Muslim countries has basically made the parents or brothers a main factor (almost a broker) in deciding the amount of the bride-purse, and as such they usually add their cut into the agreed amount.

Your analysis is interesting, especially the part about non-price competition. Basically how this pans out in the KSA is that the bridal home is lavishly furnished, property is transferred to the brides name, or other kickbacks are given to the family (realized or potential).

In fact, because of the high salaries of Saudi women (who work as teachers and admin positions) many people are not willing to give away their daughter in marriage, as that would cut off the cash cow of their daughters/sisters salary that they milk monthly. Unless the suitor can really make it worth while, they generally do not allow them to marry, causing a myriad of problems such as late-marriage, debt, and general dissatisfaction when marriage is realized.

The footnote defining what a dowry is as applied to Islamic law is wrong. There is no dowry (given by the bride's family to the groom) legislated in Islamic law. There is the bride-purse (given by the groom to the bride) and is a condition for the marriage to be legally binding.

Confusion of the two by Muslims translating into the english language is usually a case of "lost in translation".

jaim klein writes:

Let me be clearer. In Israeli Beduin society, which is the same of Saudi Arabia, the groom pays a "mahr" (Hebrew: mocher) or "bride price" to the bride. That money is supposed to be a kind of insurance policy in case of divorce or whatever, but the bride's family usually takes part or most of it. The Saudi Government's iniciative to legislatively cap the "mahr" is doomed to failure, as is the Princess's demand to abolish it completely. The "mahr" serves a vital social function where a man can divorce his wife with ease but the prospects of a rejected woman are extremely poor. And Saudi Arabia is not a working State, certainly not in the sense that has a bureaucracy charged with collecting children maintenance from "delinquent" fathers. My point is that the "mahr" cannot and should not be legislated away, but it will lose it economic significance as social conditions change. With social change, the "mahr" will soon become a ceremonial/folkloric institution, with no economic meaning at all, just as it is in Judaism. We could start by offering economic education to Saudi princesses (our own Jewish pricesses dont seem to need it).

Acad Ronin writes:

This is a topic that really requires a good knowledge of Islamic Law. Mine is limited, so take the following with some caution.

The money the bride brings with her is 1) a de facto prepayment of her inheritance, and 2) hers to keep in widowhood or divorce. Caping it at zero harms the bride as it means that should the marriage fail or her husband die, she is left with little, and certainly with much less than half. Sharia has quite specific rules on the division of inheritance, rules that limit the wife's share. One reason for the ubiquitous gold souks in the Moslem world is that her jewelry remains hers in widowhood and divroce too. An interesting survey out of an area in NW India showed that the average rural family had almost as much wealth tied up in jewelry (which belongs to the wife) as in land and agricultural equipment (which belongs to the husband and his family), suggesting that wives were protecting themselves against traditional divorce and inheritance distributions.

This is a case, like no fault divorce, that genrally hurts women while seeming to help them.

jaim klein writes:

The "mahr" is good for women. Even if she never sees a copper coin of it, her family benefits and will offer her protection in case of disgrace. The mahr also increases the stability of the marriage, as more the onerous it is, lesser the temptation to break it up and send the woman back to her hamula (family). It would like to think of the "mahr" as a social transaction, or as a religious command, but it is undeniable that it has market (demand, supply) elements.

jaim klein writes:

PS: Should feminists favor its abolition? In my opinion, Saudi feminists should have other priorities, such as legislating married women's right to private property and bank accounts. Contrariwise, feminists could be abolished.

Hood Bradford writes:

Acad Ronin,
"...1) a de facto prepayment of her inheritance..."
I guess you could look at it that way, in that in Islamic Law man and wife are not bound into one legal entity, so by demanding an high early payment she is some what securing her future in case that her pre-determined portion of inheritance is limited due to the presence of children or co-wives.
The husband and his heirs have no claim to any of her wealth unless there is proof of shared ownership. I don't know about American divorce law, but in Islamic law this is the de facto rule.

Capping it at zero would definitely harm her, and place undue burden on her male relatives, who under Islamic law have the obligation of providing for her financially after the death of her husband.

Robert Schwartz writes:
Blame their parents - and the policies that keep them in the driver's seat.

Applying economic analysis to Saudi Arabia, a society mired in the dark ages by a tyranical government based on an obscurantist version of their religion, is like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.

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