Is An Engagement Ring Equivalent To The Bridewealth Custom?

March 25, 2016  |  


Image Source: Shutterstock

Image Source: Shutterstock

A few months ago, I wrote an article about the bridewealth custom (also known as bride-price) practiced in many Sub-Saharan African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In that article, I argued for the abolishment of the custom, mainly because of how it has widely become corrupted into a profiteering scheme in modern society, and how this may disempower the bride in the marriage.

I received some pushback on the article; some folks weren’t thrilled that I was denouncing this part of my Zimbabwean culture, and asserted that the diamond engagement ring tradition in Western cultures is equivalent to the bridewealth tradition. So, the question was raised as to whether I also advocate for the abolishment of the engagement ring custom. It’s an interesting question because I’d never really thought about engagement rings like that.

But are the traditions really the same thing?

On the surface, the two customs look pretty similar. In both cases, a man usually gives up something of monetary value in exchange for a woman’s hand in marriage. However, a closer look at the customs reveals vast differences.

Starting from a historical context, the customs served quite different purposes. As far as traditions go, the use of diamond rings to symbolize a marriage engagement is a fairly recent tradition. According to an article in The Atlantic (The Strange and Formerly Sexist Economics of Engagement Rings), in the US, the practice only picked up in the 1940s when a law known as the Breach of Promise to Marry was repealed. The law had allowed women to sue men who broke off an engagement and women needed this protection because a formerly engaged woman’s virginity status was questionable after the break-up and that essentially decreased her societal value and future marriage prospects. (Why female virginity was such a big deal back then is a whole other story). Going to the courts was often the woman’s only form of recourse. So when women lost this protection from the courts, a diamond ring upon engagement became like a form of collateral to cover a woman’s loss in the event that the man did not follow through with his pledge to marry.

In contrast, the bride-price custom originally served as a man’s gesture of thanks to the bride’s family for raising a good woman, and for allowing him to marry the woman. The bride-price ceremony also functioned as a means to build rapport between the two families. The bride-price ceremony itself was considered the marriage ceremony.

Beyond the dissimilarities in the original purposes of the two customs, there are other key differences which are perhaps more relevant to how we see the customs practiced today. Namely, in the engagement ring tradition:

  1. The wealth remains with the couple

The woman keeps the ring, whereas in the bridewealth custom, the couple may never see that money again (depending on the specific tribe’s culture).

  1. The man has more control over how much he spends

How much the man decides to spend on an engagement ring is for the most part up to him. The payment of bride-price, however, involves negotiations between the two families, but the bride’s family ultimately can refuse the offered sum (thus preventing the marriage) if they deem it to be too low.

  1. Selecting a ring is personal

Compared to giving cash (as is now the common form of bride-price payments), picking the right ring style for the woman is a very personal task, which possibly is why the diamond ring gesture might seem more like a gift than a transaction.

Perhaps it’s these elements of the engagement ring tradition that help to explain why many men I spoke to on this subject of buying a ring were either neutral about it or really enthusiastic about it. Some guys really like the physical symbol of the commitment, and others also like the idea of “marking their territory,” which I guess is romantic in an animal kingdom kind of way. Some thought that the ring idea is silly but would go along with it anyways.

I was unsuccessful in finding research that explored links between the engagement ring custom and the abuse of women’s rights in marriage. By comparison, there are many studies that investigate the relationship between the bridewealth tradition and women’s rights. While a lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that the engagement ring tradition has no negative effect at all on women in marriage superficially, it does seem like the modern day practice is at least less detrimental to women than the bride-price custom.   

Having said that

The diamond engagement ring tradition comes with its own shortcomings.

Diamond engagement rings only became so prolific in the 1940s thanks to a diamond supplier monopoly: the De Beers diamond company, founded by British explorer (read: colonialist) Cecil John Rhodes. Long story short, through some price fixing and what is probably the most successful advertising campaign of all time, diamond rings became part and parcel of the marriage proposal. As explained by Freakonomics Radio, the charade continues today as consumers continue to buy diamonds at massively inflated prices, even though diamonds are actually not as rare as they’re purported to be. This marketing ploy, infuriating yet impressive at the same time, really irks me.

Also, tied up in the diamond engagement ring tradition is a strong notion that there is a minimum amount of money that should be spent on said ring to really prove your love for your partner. It’s the usual suspects to blame for this idea. As noted in a New York Times article, De Beers’ advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son launched an ad campaign in the 1980s with the line, “Isn’t two months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?” Boooooo.

At the end of the day

How other people want to express their love for and commitment to each other is up to them. If you show me your diamond engagement ring, I’ll be happy for you and even ooh and aah at it (since diamonds are pretty after all). But for me, as someone who doesn’t even like to wear jewelry all that much, I’d probably get about the same amount of utility from wearing an engagement ring as I do watching a Tyler Perry movie — very little to none. I’d much prefer an engagement vacation or a joint brokerage account with some money already in the kitty for our future.


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