A dowry is something the modern girl in America or Europe thinks about only when watching a movie like Pride and Prejudice or another movie with an equally archaic theme. And generally speaking it is something to be conquered for the well-deserving, poor heroine and eventually the social obligation is overcome by the steadfast love of the noble, exceedingly wealthy lord who loves her for her spunk and intelligence. Yes, I know, I love these kinds of shows waaaaay too much. But seriously, being in our little corner of Kyrgyzstan has thrown this all into a whole new light. I had a wonderful conversation with some good friends here who explained the dowry system, as they experience it, from a very modern day Central Asian angle.
Both have come to marriage under very different circumstances. One met and married the man she loved a little later in life (mid 20s) and the other was kidnapped by a stranger earlier in life (early 20s). My understanding had been that if you are kidnapped, money is saved by both families, which is, I thought, one of the reasons for this modern-day practice. But it turns out that the dowry still needs to be paid. Maybe, the dowry is lower, but I suspect it is lower based on social and financial standing in any case (as would have been the case in Pride and Prejudice).
The interesting bit is that in our little village the practice is that as a wife enters her new home, she tells her parents what she needs in order to set up house. This can vary based on if she has entered a multigenerational home. Let’s say she is living with her in-laws (her new family) and they have a refrigerator but no washing machine: she may ask for the washing machine. Or if the home is pretty well equipped (which would be a very lucky bride indeed), she could ask for extra bedding and a set of bedroom furniture that would be her own.
Then the family has several years to gather up what they need in order to give the dowry. The dowry party is pretty huge between the two families. The husband’s family cooks up a big spread of all the favorite Kyrgyz dishes. The bride’s family comes to visit for the day and spreads out all the gifts that will be given to the new family. The bride and her sisters or sisters in law from her family (i.e. her brothers’ wives) will then serve all the food that has been laid out. There is dancing and fun festivities. Then at the end of the evening the families go their separate ways, with the bride being in touch with her birth family as much as her new family allows. But at this time the obligations from the birth family to their daughter and her new family are fulfilled.