Times of Change

Recently, the Maharashtra cabinet sent a proposal for the legalization of live-in relationships. Sometime earlier this year, the Tamil Nadu government decided to issue ration cards to the Transgender community in India. There is also an ongoing debate over the legalization of homosexuality in India. This is a time of progress; the winds of change are blowing. We are on our way to utopia, an era of peace, tolerance and acceptance. India really does seem to be shining, doesn’t it?

Let’s cut to another picture. On Saturday, a pregnant woman’s dead body was found in a bed box, or diwan, in a rented apartment in Trilokpuri. A foul smell emanating from the flat drew disturbed neighbors to the house, expecting to find the carcass of a dead animal. Never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined what they would chance upon. Family members of Sangeeta, the deceased, cried fowl and alleged murder. The body had cuts on the neck and wrist. The main suspect behind the murder is Sangeeta’s husband, who is currently absconding. The motive? Dowry. The archaic, decadent, debauched system of dowry, abolished almost 50 years ago, but still as rampantly practiced.

Students of our generation have studied the dowry system as a social evil or menace that has long been abolished. However, it is hardly a thing of the past. Cases like that of Sangeeta are not unique. Every year, we come across hundreds of instances of bride burning, married women dying under suspicious circumstances, and the motive largely points to differences arising out of the amount of dowry offered. Some cases like these come into the limelight, several others are mentioned and then forgotten, and thousand others go unnoticed and unreported.

It is the 21st century, the age of modernity and progress, and the menace of a custom as decadent as dowry still continues to be one of the biggest problems faced by women in our society. Though Sangeeta’s case is just one among thousands, it shocked me with its brutality and prompted me to think long and hard about the dowry system and the place it still holds in the lives of women in India. It drove me to investigate the origins of dowry and see how this system came into place at all. What I found was both interesting and surprising.

Most studies suggest that the practice of giving dowry or ‘dahej’ bears its roots in the system of ‘streedhan’. Streedhan was the woman’s stake in her parent’s wealth, given to her at the time of marriage. Property laws in India ensured that only the male heir would inherit family property, leaving the woman with no access to money or property and rendering her economically dependent. Thus, streedhan served as a sort of safety net for the woman which she could access in case she faced marital problems or was left by her husband.

What is ironic is how a system meant to create security for the woman evolved into something that led to her biggest source of insecurity and threat. Gradually, the streedhan system changed from something voluntary to something that was demanded by the groom’s family. It was no longer kept aside for the woman but was looked upon as a means to enhance and bring wealth into the groom’s family. The quantity and form of this ‘gift’ also grew to be decided by the husband and in-laws. Dowry could acquire the form of cash, valuables, property or consumer goods. With time, dowry and marriage became inseparably linked. The worth or value of the woman was decided upon in terms of the amount of dowry she would bring in.

An examination of the origins of the dowry system shows the tragic decline of a system meant to safeguard and protect, to one which grew to spell doom for womankindThe consequences of this system of women were disastrous. It led to the complete commodification of the woman, who was seen only in terms of the economic value she would add to the family she would marry into. If the bride’s family was unable to provide the dowry on time or give the agreed upon amount, the bride would be harassed and tortured. Many times, the demands of the receiving family were insatiable. Even after the decided dowry amount was paid, the bride’s in laws would demand more and more, and failure or refusal to provide dowry would lead to the physical and mental torture of the bride. The practice of bride burning came about, wherein the bride was burned to death on inability to pay dowry.

It is clear how this system adversely affected the status of women in society. Links can be drawn between the dowry system and the other serious of gender discrimination, like female foeticide, infanticide and the preference of a male child. As the demands for dowry began scaling new hands, a daughter’s marriage became an extremely expensive affair. Moreover, the daughter had no means of adding to the income of the family. On the other hand, a son would be able to augment the house hold income, both in terms of his earnings and the dowry he would fetch at the time of marriage. Thus, a male heir was increasingly preferred and female infanticide and foeticide were on the rise.

By 1961, the dowry prohibition act was abolished, and dowry was legally abolished. However, dowry and marriage were now so closely linked together, that dowry continued to be given and taken in a clandestine, undercover manner. Dowry began to spread its claws far and wide and spread to areas like South India, where it had not been prevalent before.

The malaise of the dowry system and the oppressiveness that is now synonymous with it makes me question the whole concept of humanity or what is ‘humane’. It raises the bar of cruelty and is a testament to what greed can reduce us to. It paints a very sorry picture of the status of women in India today. It is indeed tragic that in this century, where we have women politicians, business women, prominent journalists, sportspersons etc, there is a flipside which is as grim as the other is grand. And though prima facie we are in changing times, a lot is till old and decadent. Particularly in the case of dowry, the situation doesn’t seem to be improving and that’s what is scary.

Moreover, dowry as a problem is not limited to the rural, un-educated or backward sections of the society, the scale and extent to which dowry is practiced in the upper classes is in fact much higher. Thus education and awareness are not the solutions to it. What is needed is a great shift in mindset. The inherently sexist and chauvinistic thinking that most of us belong to, though we don’t acknowledge it, has to dramatically change. We live in a patriarchal society where marriage is the most important end to a woman’s life, and getting a ‘good’ match is the parent’s mission from the time a girl is born. Many stigmas are attached to a girl who is turned down or marriages that don’t work out, conditions apt for the dowry system to flourish.

We need to change our way of thinking and dramatically so. Till then, no matter how many Nuclear deals we sign, and how much our GDP rises, India will not be a progressing nation.

Soumya Rao

[Image Source: http://artfiles.art.com/images/-/Rana-Rodger/NATIVE-AMERICAN-WOMEN-2-Giclee-Print-