Dowry: An Unwelcome Guest at Indian Weddings

Deepali Gaur Singh

Dowry practices in India drive women's limited access to education and self-determination.

The word dowry in the Indian context
literally means the payment in cash and/or in kind by the bride’s family
to the bridegroom’s family along with the ‘giving away’ of the
bride under the system of Hindu marriage. There are many conflicting
versions of the origin of the system itself but with due credit to all
versions of this social practice one finds it hard to believe there
could ever have been a justification for it in a context where women
were treated unequal to men and as a burden upon the paternal home.

‘Dahej,’ the Hindi term
for dowry, is quite unequivocally derided as an ugly word
even though in practice, many participate, accept or give dowry – wherein lies the dichotomy of this odious practice. Even the educated, professional elite of the country have contributed
to the institutionalization of the practice despite the existence of
a law criminalizing it. Many of its flagrant violators are also government functionaries entrusted with the job of implementing the
law in the first place.

‘Streedhan’ – the milder
and more acceptable usage for the same practice literally meaning a
‘woman’s wealth’ – was believed to be the original intent of the
much abused dowry system today. It was the wealth the father gave his
daughter in the form of money, jewelry or cattle at the time of her
wedding, meant as her financial security, since women did not enjoy a
share in family property. Over time the amount
began to be determined by the groom’s side of the family in lieu of
the alliance.

Gradually, dowry became
the opportunity for the groom’s side to redeem all the ‘investment’
gone in to the education of their son(s) from the girl’s side of the
family. Thus, the quality of education, the degrees accumulated and
the potential jobs were the parameters to demand exorbitant amounts
of money from the prospective bride. Ironically, in a country where
education continues to come at a premium largely due to mass scale poverty, an educated bride not only dwindled her chances at finding a suitable alliance (since educated boys were not easy to come by) but also, consequently, exponentially increased the dowry demands off her family.

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So the system found a way of penalizing parents for spending
on their daughters’ education.

But the dowry system is not a rural
or small town phenomena and neither has it declined with increased levels
of more equitable education in the urban areas of the country. Globalization
brought with it interesting materialistic alterations. From demands
for hard cash the stipulations switched to motorbikes or cars and household
items (considered luxury items in many households) like refrigerators and
television sets. Most police stations in the country are known not
to lodge cases of dowry and police officials rarely treat the cases
with any seriousness simply because of its social legitimacy. It is not considered
a crime even though it is illegal by legislation.

There are many rituals leading
up to a wedding, which more often than not must be hosted
and funded by the bride’s family, even if it means taking a loan. In
more contemporary times dowries have metamorphosized into demands for
theme weddings and not necessarily material items like a computer or
washing machine. So while theme weddings might have spawned a complete
industry by themselves for wedding planners, the truth is that the exorbitant
costs of these weddings are almost always completely borne by the bride’s
family. The economic setback this involves for families is very often
the reason why daughters are hardly welcome in most families with disastrous
consequences for the gender ratio in the country.

The dowry demand and the manner in
which it guides alliances are also responsible for the limited commitment made towards
the education of girls in the country. It is not uncommon
to find advertisements on relatively progressive media also guided by
such social constructs. So while one invested in the son’s education,
it was equally prudent to start saving early for the girl’s wedding
(meaning dowry).

The absence of any serious and concerted efforts to deal with this social issue have taken it to the next level — resulting in dowry deaths when the bride’s family does not comply with their dowry promises.
The "accidental" deaths of young brides in the kitchen due to stoves
bursting just within the first few years, or deaths termed as suicide
over the years led to a more severe legislation; legislation which put the onus of
proving innocence on the husband and the in-laws of the victim, if the death
occurred within the first seven years of marriage. More recently, there
have been moves to remove the seven year cap because of instances of women enduring dowry-related torture even two decades into a marriage.

And even as statistics on dowry deaths point to one reported every
45 minutes (besides the cases of mental harassment and torture that are
largely undocumented), a more recent judgement by the Supreme
Court has been a setback in eroding this social malaise. Despite clear examples of protracted
dowry demands at the slightest excuse, according to the court, customary articles given to the bridegroom’s relatives
at the time of marriage or during the birth of a child will not come
within the ambit of dowry under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961.

Reports in the media have also clearly
pointed to the prevalence of the practice all over the country – from
a phenomenon once believed to be restricted to the north of the country. Communities across the country have within their system
of rituals and customs managed to accommodate dowry as a crucial custom
defining the alliance. Ridiculously low rates of prosecution against
the criminals, pressure on families to get
their daughters married off at the first sight of an eligible
groom, loud whispers of dowry deaths and harassment
allegations, have not stopped criminal families from getting their sons married
off again and again with newer and fresher dowries. Thus, while getting
rid of a non-milking cow (the wife) for not getting enough dowry,
and behind the façade of accidental deaths, the horror is that most families have actually gotten away with not just the crime but another cash rich alliance.

In the midst of poverty, boys continue
to demand a price at birth, even as girls are unwelcome in their paternal households, and become even more vulnerable as
they step in to their matrimonial home.

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