The Burden of Marriage

Nias is an island in the North Sumatra province, Indonesia, with enormous cultural richness, one of which presents both social guidance and hardships to Nias men who are to wed Nias women.

Böwö is a local term describing the bridewealth the groom and his kin has to pay to the bride and her kin. Bridewealth expresses an example of patriarchal behaviour in Indonesia from which Nias is not exempt. On the other side, dowry is the money, or goods that the bride gives to the groom and his family. Dowry mostly exists in matriarchal societies. In Indonesia, it prevails in Padang, West Sumatra, among the local people of Minangkabau. It is often labeled as the ‘pickup money’, a certain amount of funds the female needs to be able to pick up the male from his family into the new family they are forming.

According to Postinus Gulö, the author of the book about böwö, böwö doesn’t etymologically translate to bridewealth. A gift that is free of charge and voluntarily given is its direct translation. In Nias, giving and sharing is not a foreign concept, so it is generally in Indonesia.

Fegero, the act of sharing food voluntarily to surrounding neighbours, is also rooted in the Nias society. For instance, when Ama Nito (Ama Nito is the local appellative for the father of the first child which is Nito in this instance) manages to have netted heaps of fishes, sharing his catch with the neighbours is genuinely natural.

Essentially, böwö should not just be viewed as a compulsory bridewealth, yet as a form of love and attention exerted by the parents to their son and to the female — and her family — who is to spend eternity together with their son. In Nias language, a generous person is termed with a word that also has the word böwö — niha soböwö sibai.

While, according to Apolonius Lase, the author of the Nias-Indonesian dictionary, the word böwö is prone to multiple interpretations, as it could also be translated as ‘pride’ or ‘culture’. In a broader sense, Nias males intending to wed Nias females must deliver böwö as a compensation for the fact that the female possesses pride and culture to which due respect must be paid in forms of money, gold, or other valuable goods.

To illustrate how böwö functions, we assume a Nias man by the name of Nito is to marry Jessica, a Nias female. Initially, Nito has to secure the approval of his parents regarding his spouse choice, which has to be attained without any face-to-face encounter between Jessica and any member of Nito’s family, since it is traditionally a taboo.

Then, Nito and his family would have to formally propose Jessica and her family in order to declare formal engagement. Afterwards, it will be followed by series of discussions and negotiations on how much bridewealth should be paid, which partially is based on the social, economic, and educational status of the bride and her father. Customarily, the amount could mount up to 200 million Rupiah (15000 USD), while the average monthly income of the people of Nias is just slightly above 1 million Rupiah (75 USD).

It is unfortunate that meaning reduction has more often than not marred the interpretation of böwö. Gogoila, the local term for ‘terms and conditions’, frequently replaces böwö and dominates the prenuptial discussions. The meaning has been distorted from something sincere, unconditional, and voluntary, to something contractual, conditional, and compulsory. In those discussions, both parties seek to bargain and reach an agreement on the amount of böwö, or gogoila, the groom has to pay to the bride and her family. At times, it is conveyed more as an economic trade-off, or, even worse, the price tag to ‘buy’ the female from her family.

With that that high of a ‘price tag’, the hope is that the marriage would be an everlasting and harmonic one. On the contrary, it frequently presents larger burden than benefit to the groom. As aforementioned, the overwhelming amount of böwö could trap the people of Nias in the circle of poverty by forcing the male and his family to endlessly earn money simply for the sake of paying off their böwö debt. Local cultural forums have been conducted to discuss this matter and its implications.

“In my opinion, the traditional Nias customs must certainly be upheld, the concept of utterly respecting one’s uncles, relatives, in-laws, grandparents, and so on. However, when böwö becomes a generational burden, I don’t think it’s the right way to go about it. Respect can be expressed in forms of attention, assistance, and sympathy. I believe the emphasis should be on the spiritual, affectional, and social aspect of böwö,” Postinus added.
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