A dowry is a type of payment or gift of property that accompanies a bride upon marriage. The custom has been most common in settled agricultural societies where it may form an important part of the financial arrangements for a marriage. The types of property included in a dowry vary tremendously depending on the economic circumstances of the families involved and the customary expectations of the society. A woman's dowry might include personal possessions (such as clothing and jewels), money, servants, or land. Societies vary in regarding a dowry as the property of the bride, her husband, or her husband's family. Where the custom exists, women frequently receive dowries in lieu of a right of inheritance from their father's estates (Goody and Tambiah 1973).
The custom of giving dowries may perform several positive functions. First, as with other common forms of marital exchange such as bride-wealth (also called bride-price), a dowry affirms an alliance between two families united by marriage. Second, a dowry may provide a bride with some protection against an abusive husband. Should she leave her husband, a woman's family may demand that all or part of her dowry be returned. Third, a young couple may use the dowry to set up their own household. Finally, a woman may need to rely upon her dowry for support should her husband die and she has no rights to inheritance. These are by no means universal functions. They are contingent on the ways that people conceive of the dowry and, especially, on whether the wife controls all or part of it.
Dowry often has a marked political dimension. In medieval Europe, noble families down on their fortunes often sought to marry their sons to women from rich families whose dowries would thus enhance their own financial situations. By the same token, a newly wealthy family could improve its social standing by using rich dowries to form marital alliances with those of a higher class. In northern India, marrying daughters upwards, using the enticement of dowries, has long provided one of the chief means for families to raise their status (by very small increments) within the rigidly hierarchical caste system, a process technically known as hypergamy. In general, the custom of dowry imposes a financial burden upon families with daughters that can be especially heavy when the family has few or no sons who might themselves attract wives with dowries.
Dowry had disappeared from most of Europe by the beginning of the twentieth century, but remains a common practice in south Asia. In India it has become a matter of some controversy and a subject for legal reform because of a large number of incidents in which women have been harassed and even murdered by their in-laws in attempts to extort richer dowries. Debate continues as to whether dowry deaths should be understood as a byproduct of the custom itself or as the result of modern conditions that have undermined the traditional connections between families brought together in marriage while inflating the cash value of dowries (Menski 1999).
Goody, J. and Tambiah, S. J. (1973). Bridewealth and Dowry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Menski, W., ed. (1999). South Asians and the Dowry Problem. Stoke-on-Trent, Stratfordshire, UK: Trentham Books.