By Vineeta Chawla:
One of the biggest menaces of Indian society is the dowry system. This fact that it is condemned by every modern citizen of this country and yet it still flourishes at a very large scale in our society is a testimony of how deeply rooted this system is in the Indian society.
Dowry (dahej) is one of the most ancient practices of India and Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘an amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage’. But the origins of dowry are far nobler than we imagine. Dowry was started by wealthy businessmen, kings and other influential people of the society as a means to give girls their due in the ancestral property as in those times, even till recent times, all the money and property went to the sons only. Later on, it was used to provide “seed money” or property for the establishment of a new household. Till then the amount and contents of dowry were decided solely by the parents of the bride.
But now dowry is demanded by the groom’s parents and marriage takes place only if a certain amount of dowry is paid by the bride’s parents. Today dowry is given as compensation to the groom’s parents for the amount they have spent in educating and upbringing their son. It is also considered a status symbol, especially in the high class, and generally, the items of dowry are flaunted and hyped by both parties.
The effects of dowry system are many and varied but in almost all cases it is the girl’s side which has to face the repercussions while the boy’s side walks away from the issue unharmed, with their heads held high. When demands for dowry are not met, the bride is subjected to torture, and often even killed. Most of the dowry deaths occur when the young women, unable to bear the harassment and torture, are pushed to suicide. Most of these suicides are by hanging oneself, poison or self-immolation. Sometimes the woman is killed by setting her on fire which is known as ‘bride burning’ and is disguised as an accident to avoid criminal charges and punishment.
Bride-burning accounts for the death of at least one woman every hour in India, more than 8000 women a year, while 20 women die every day as a result of harassment over dowry – either murdered or compelled to suicide. It is also a reason why many parents don’t want to have daughters, because of the dowry they will have to shell out at her marriage, and the stress they go through due to never-ending demands from her in-laws. In fact, dowry deaths of a newly married bride are regularly in the news.
Bride price, also known as bride wealth, is a reversal of the dowry system. It’s an amount of money or property paid by the groom or his family to the parents of a woman upon the marriage. In ancient literature, bride price has often been explained as payment made in exchange for the bride’s family’s loss of her labour and fertility within her kin group. The agreed bride price is generally intended to reflect the perceived value of the girl or young woman. This practice, though less prevalent than dowry, is still practised in some rural areas of the country. But it is even worse than dowry as this practice thinks of girls as items that can be sold or bought.
The government has taken many steps to stop the abominable practice of dowry. The Dowry Prohibition Act, passed in 1961, prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of dowry, where “dowry” is defined as a gift demanded or given as a precondition for a marriage. Asking or giving of dowry can be punished by imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of up to Rs.5000. Many anti-dowry legislation has also been made to tackle the dowry system. The media has also done its bit by showcasing the cases of dowry and its ill-effects.
Today dowry is not the innocent practice that it started out as but has turned into a social menace that cannot be reverted back to its original form; hence it must be eradicated from our society permanently.