By Nidhi Khurana:
Levi Strauss in ‘Elementary Forms of Kinship’ emphasized the women as the “ultimate gifts” involved in creating of alliances and networks. According to him, the flow of women is essential to social integration, and groups are held together by giving and receiving daughters, sisters and wives. Many have criticized Levi Strauss for presenting women as objects or reducing them to mere commodities. But this is not to be forgotten that Levi Strauss’s account is based on a huge ethnographic observations, which conclude that women are just exchanged. The “exchange of women”, which he does explain, is considered to be the archetype of marriage, almost in every part of the globe. What varies from culture to culture is the form of marriage payments made at the time of marriages. Dowry and bride price are the most common of all. Bride kidnapping is also found in some parts of the world.
Dowry is a much talked about issue when it comes to Indian weddings. Parents spend extravagantly to get their daughters married off to a good husband. They present their daughters decorated like a gift to the groom. However, in a scenario, where women are turning into scarce objects with males outnumbering females as per the 2011 census, the institution of dowry, it seems will collapse in the near future. The institution will soon probably get supplanted by not-so-famous and not-so-ethical institution of bride wealth. This institution specifies that a prospective husband, usually with the help of his relatives, must provide a substantial sum of money or highly valued goods to his future wife’s family before a marriage can be contracted. This institution makes sense on account of the compensation it offers to the girl’s parents, but if we contemplate closely, is this not another kind of prostitution, institutionalized prostitution to be precise?
Recently, in Madhya Pradesh, in the districts of Ashoknagar and Guna, some cases have been reported in which women were sold to the grooms in return for some cash and cattle.The girls involved were mostly minors in the age group of 14 to 16. These girls were sold at a meagre amount of thirty to fifty thousand or in return for a buffalo. Well, seriously? They are humans and not objects that have such low prices.
Marriage is a sacrosanct contract in which both the partners have an equal say. With institutions like dowry and bride wealth, the contract loses all it sacredness and reduces itself to a sexual contract based on monetary exchanges. It can be considered to be a sexual contract especially in the cases of bride price because traffickers usually buy brides and sell them in the other states or overseas, after satisfying their own sexual needs. These women belong to the lower classes and their parents have no option but to sell them in return for some money that can sustain their life for a little while. What else can they do when the cost of raising a daughter are rising like anything, when there is a little chance that parents can protect their daughters from the eyes of the man ready to wither her gullible being.
Sadly, the state has also not been doing anything to protect the interests of the women belonging to the weaker and poor sections of the society. Atrocities against tribal women have gained attention of late but the state is still reluctant to look into this matter seriously. When it can let the rapists flout without impunity, when traffickers can go unnoticed, there is no way we can stop crimes against women. Feminists’ movements have also failed to subsume the interests of these women in the mainstream agenda. And while the Indian society itself carries on its hypocritical nature of worshipping and exploiting women at the same time, the only question which looms in my mind is- How can we possibly price the priceless?