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Dowry for Kids - What is a dowry? Why did your father pay a dowry when you got married?
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Beginning about as far back as there are any written records, about 3000 BC, people exchanged money as part of a marriage. The custom is probably much older than that, even. When a girl's father wanted her to marry a boy, both of their fathers would get together and discuss the financial arrangements. Usually, the girl's father agreed to give the boy something valuable - some cows or sheep, or a piece of farmland, or some gold jewelry. We call this gift a "dowry". (DOW-ree).

Then if the couple got divorced, later on, the husband had to return his wife's dowry. This gave him a good reason not to divorce her, because he would lose the dowry. And, if he did divorce her, it gave his wife some income to live on when she went back to her father's or brother's house (In those days, the husband usually kept the children, so there was no need for child support payments).

In the Code of Hammurabi, written about 1700 BC, the Babylonians ruled that the husband had to return his wife's dowry if he divorced her, and also if she died without having any sons. If her husband died, the wife also got her dowry, even though their children inherited the rest of her husband's stuff, so the widow would have something to live on.

Not all early marriages involved a dowry. In some places, like Archaic Greece, according to Homer, the custom went the other way, with the husband's family paying a bride price to the woman's family instead, which they were supposed to hold onto in case she needed it. People's customs go back and forth between bride price and dowry depending on many things like whether there are more single women or more single men, and the relative power of women in that culture. The custom can change quickly. In Classical Greece, and in the early Roman Empire the main gift was a dowry. Then in the later Roman Empire, after about 200 AD, the custom changed so that men paid a bride-price instead, and so did the invading Germanic tribes like the Visigoths and the Vandals. But in medieval Europe, the main gift was a dowry again. The Koran, from the 600s AD, also tells Islamic men to provide a dowry.

Fathers gave dowries or bridge prices not just in Europe and West Asia but all over the world. The Indian epic, the Ramayana, written probably about 300 BC, tells how Sita brought a huge dowry for Rama when they got married. In ancient Africa, bride price was more common than dowry, though both were known. In China, there were also shifts between bride price and dowry, depending mainly on changes in inheritance law and the control men had over property. At the end of the Han Dynasty, about 200 AD, boys were paying a bride price in order to marry a girl. But during the T'ang Dynasty in the 600s AD, for example, the father paid a dowry when his daughter got married.

Even as far away as North America, fathers paid dowries when their daughters got married, or boys paid bride prices. Iroquois husbands, for example, paid bride prices at the time of contact (about 1500 AD), usually deer or deerhides.

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