Love and Dowry

Gillian Bouras

‘You can’t hope to get a reasonable husband unless you have a good dowry,’ said my Greek sister-in-law, Pipitsa. It was 1980 and I was thirty-five. I had just arrived in Greece for six months’ holiday in her Peloponnesian village, and although I moved in Greek circles in Melbourne, I knew little of traditional village life. Pipitsa and I were the same age and we both had two little boys; she was to teach me a lot in her vivacious, live-wire way. That afternoon, as we walked in the family’s olive groves, she told me how much land her father had sold for her sake and how many olive trees her husband had been given. This conversation was my first insight into the notion of marriage as a contract, one carefully negotiated for the sake of perpetuating the species in optimum conditions. I had been married seven years at that point and had not given a thought to the stern practicalities of an older world. 

But I soon began to remember some of my father’s wartime stories. Among the men of the Iban people of Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, headhunters armed with deadly blow-pipes, a certain number of heads was a prerequisite for marriage. This was the case not so long ago and posed a problem for Allied troops during World War Two. My soldier father, who was in both places, said the Iban men could not understand why the troops would not hand over a few Japanese prisoners of war for this purpose. In Papua New Guinea, men paid a bride-price too, but in pigs rather than heads. In the Mediterranean, it seemed to me, things were not so different.

What about love? What about romance? I gathered that such matters were irrelevant in a Peloponnesian village in the 1980s. And had always been irrelevant. To experience the pleasures of love and romance, a woman must first hold value, material and otherwise. So, for the generation before Pipitsa’s, no dowry almost certainly meant no husband. This had been the unhappy fate of Maria, my neighbour, whose family was so poor that only her older sister had a dowry. My mother-in-law, the redoubtable Aphrodite, she of the basilisk gaze and top-to-toe black, she who had raised six children and who had faced down a band of guerillas during the Civil War, had been married by προξενιο, (by arrangement) to her third cousin, a man her father chose for her. Aphrodite had olive trees and land, and an impressive trousseau that she had started to make before she reached her teens. She was, of course, a virgin. In societies preoccupied with masculine control, virginity acted as a guarantor of value; it proved that the bride had been no other man’s property and that her children would also be the property of her husband. 

I lived in close proximity to Aphrodite for more than fifteen years and every so often she would impart what I considered hair-raising information. She once explained to me, quite matter-of-factly, that because land was so important in her day, girls of property were sometimes raped by greedy young men. Traditional ideas of honour meant that marriage had to follow, so that the young man gained everything. Pity poor village girls: no wonder they were chaperoned within an inch of their lives.

Admittedly, my sister-in-law’s statement was spoken more than thirty years ago, just before the Papandreou socialist government swept into power and outlawed the dowry system. Papandreou also saw to it that women would no longer forfeit their dowries in the event of marriage breakdown. Formerly, anything a woman brought to the marriage automatically became the property of her husband. In practice, this meant that women often had to put up with appalling treatment: they had no recourse or redress. 

It had been the same in England. The Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1870, and the new law applied in Wales and Northern Ireland as well. These legal changes meant that women could at last inherit property and also be the legal owners of any money they earned or were given. Scotland, which had its own legal system, caught up in 1877. Before these acts, as in Greece, every woman lost control of her money and assets as soon as she was married. Husbands could do as they liked with their wives’ fortunes; they could even will it away on death. 
As well in rural Greece, patriarchy and the Orthodox Church were clearly in cahoots, and to a certain extent they still are. The Church has always viewed women as a danger that must be controlled: they are all descendants of Eve, who herself was responsible for the weighty matter of Original Sin, being the archetypal Temptress. (Never mind that Adam could have said that he wasn’t in the mood for apples, or thought up other excuses). This notion, of course, suited conservative village men well and their daughters were often married very young to much older men. A ten-year age gap or a larger one is still common in Greek marriages. 

The custom of arranged marriage, practiced for countless generations, is taking a long time to die out in village communities. Fathers are reluctant to give up control of their daughters; they still like to choose suitable husbands and they still promise prospective bridegrooms goods, land and money. Aphrodite’s grandchildren, the ones who stayed in the village, followed the traditional pattern of arranged marriages. There was deep unease in the family when one of the grandsons chose his own partner, a girl from 60 km away. I suppose I have always been the wild card so it is not surprising that my sons chose their own partners who were not from the village and who were women of education and experience. Dowries were never mentioned and all three married in civil services.

Around the time of my visit to Pipitsa, I regularly attended Greek weddings in Melbourne. One I did not enjoy at all: the bride wept throughout. Many years later, I met the couple quite accidentally, swimming off a beach near Kalamata. They were radiant. There was no trace of her miserable wedding, or of her childhood, which had been desperately poor: ten children in two rooms in a remote mountain village.

My husband and I talked about it after the wedding. He said she wept because she did not want to leave her family. Nonsense, I thought, but did not say so. I knew why she was crying. She was eighteen and she had never spent a moment alone with the bridegroom. And she would know that if she proved not to be a virgin, her husband would return her to her brothers in the morning. Women as property: there would be no question of returning the dowry.

Gillian Bouras, a teacher and writer, was born in Melbourne, and holds Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education degrees from the University of Melbourne. In 1980 she moved from Australia to Greece with her family. She has three sons, two of whom were born in Melbourne; the youngest was born in Athens. Her journalism has been published in six countries, and she has written eight books: A Foreign Wife (1986), A Fair Exchange (1991), Aphrodite and the Others (1994), A Stranger Here (1996), Starting Again (1999), and No Time for Dances (2006), all published by Penguin Books Australia. You can read more of her work here. She lives in the Peloponnese, Greece, and visits Australia at irregular intervals.