Arthur and I went to a seminar on marriage with our Sudanese friends once. We were all ready to have a discussion about Ephesians 5 or 1 Peter 3 but our friends saw nothing controversial there. They wanted to talk about dowries. Living in Australia, the traditional dowry of cows was much more expensive than it was in the Sudan. How would they ever afford to get married?
This week, the values of marriage across cultures are again in the spotlight. Daily Life ran an article about Kenyan legislation to legalise polygamy. It’s aimed at making sure that all wives have the same rights but controversy has arisen because it also does away with the bride price.
Bride price has two sides. It can be about ‘buying’ a woman, so that you ‘own’ her (and can mistreat her) or it can be about honouring her and her family. Perhaps the latter option is kind of idealistic: patriarchal societies are not know for their good treatment of women! Women are left shockingly vulnerable to a father’s greed or a husband’s lack of self-control. But not in all cases. Other marriages we encountered in Tanzania seemed (on the surface anyway!) to be remarkably egalitarian – women who edited books with their husbands, for example.
Sometimes undoing cultural norms such as bride price does more harm than good. The classic example is of early missionaries who insisted that polygamous men take only one wife, which saw the other wives abandoned and destitute, often left with prostitution as a last resort. And even if the husband chose to support the other wives financially, without children this was almost meaningless.
Occasionally change comes in a massive upheaval, like the western sexual revolutions of the 60s and 70s. But even that change wasn’t complete. Australia might lead the world when it comes to educating women but we’re 76th when it comes to paying them. Change takes generations, wherever you are.
It also takes patience. Not the kind that tells women to be passive and wait for the men to sort it out. I expect I will feel angry at the way women are treated in Tanzania. I may even be on the receiving end at times. The kind of patience I’ll need is the kind that takes time to listen to women’s stories before knee-jerking. I’m sure that my understanding of the difficulties Tanzanian women face is shallow and so are my solutions. I know that it will be easy to generalise rather than to see the complexity of the different relationships. This is the patience that requires having big ears and a little mouth!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.