What I am attempting here is a bit difficult. And as a dear friend put it “a bit tricky”. It is about men or in this case ‘a man’ (another dear friend) who put his foot down against dowry and a splurgy wedding. He prevailed. To some extent at least. There are few good men who say no to dowry in India, especially when it is an arranged marriage. This friend is one of them and may his tribe grow.
For anonymity’s sake, I will refer to him as ‘My Friend’. He got engaged last year. My Friend, an ex-IITian, works in the NGO sector, his fiancé has been selected for a prestigious government job. Both belong to modest middle class backgrounds, both lost their fathers when they were still studying and while My Friend is the second youngest and the only son among four siblings, his fiancé is the eldest of the three sisters.
A little more about the fiancé — she lost her father to an illness, the treatment of which sapped most of their savings. They at least had a house, which was a huge relief. With the sole breadwinner gone, the high-school going daughters had started taking tuitions to sustain the family. They did so through school, college and through the time they prepared for entrance exams. All three have qualified for bank jobs now- two in government banks and one in a private bank.
The date for the marriage is set for April next year. In India, the rituals in traditional marriages are designed in such a way that the bride’s family ends up bearing most of the financial burden. And then kicks in the societal pressure. A pressure to give, a pressure to show the world that ‘they can’.
Having been through tough financial times, the bride’s mother wanted to prove that she can. Especially to those who believed that with three daughters she was doomed to be miserable. But now we can all agree that with successful daughters she doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.
Though a lavish wedding was always on the radar they were a bit hesitant about approaching My Friend’s family. The concerns were dowry demands. So My Friend approached the girl’s family instead and explained that he doesn’t want anything at all, they shouldn’t worry and that he would prefer a very low-key marriage. He often laughs about it —“In the family circle I swing between being a fool and being a god for telling them I am against dowry”.
With that taken care of, the next hurdle was the lavish wedding. By lavish we are talking about spending Rs 6-7 lakhs in a tier III city– with a big hotel, fancy arrangements, taking care of multiple rituals and inviting a whole host of people. “Neither of us have that kind of money. They would have dug into all their savings for something as futile as this.” It took him a good six months to convince them against this. His fiancé’s family wasn’t too happy with this decision but his family stood by him. Now both sides have agreed to scale it down. “I would have preferred one ceremony for the entire marriage. That couldn’t happen. At least now both of us are bearing the expenses equally, as much as is possible.”
‘Dowry’ in India is usually payment in cash or in kind (in the form of expensive gifts like jewellery, car, home appliances and in some cases property) given to the groom by the bride’s family. This is one of the regressive manifestations of the patriarchal system prevalent in our country today where parents begin to accumulate dowry for their daughter almost from the day she is born. So deep set is the bias against women in India that it is irrelevant if she is financially independent; she is still seen as a burden, who parents want to get rid of at the earliest — even if it means paying to do so. And then there are the social pressures.
Though dowry is illegal in India and a punishable offence under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 it continues to be rampant . The demands range from the usual like cash, car, furniture, clothes and what not to the outrageous like arranging a lavish wedding, paying for all the rituals and pandering to the bloated egos of the groom’s immediate and extended family.
The demand for dowry is a bottomless pit. Women continue to be killed for not meeting dowry demands. Over a decade ago, My Friend’s eldest sister was burnt by her husband and in-laws. Dowry was one of the reasons. She would have become yet another statistic but she survived with 62% burns. She was brought home with two young children in tow. She battled depression for years before getting back on her feet. She now teaches in a government school.
But many are not as fortunate as My Friend’s sister. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that in 2013, India reported 8083 dowry deaths (Sec 304 B IPC). Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar registered the maximum cases with 2335 and 1182 deaths respectively. In 2012, the total incidents of dowry deaths was 8233 with UP and Bihar recording the highest number of dowry deaths with 2244 and 1275 respectively . Both UP and Bihar have been repeat offenders for quite some time .
My Friend often jokes that since his fiancé is the one with the government job, he should be paying the dowry. “A prospective groom with a government job comes with a big price tag in my state.” A strong proponent of gender equality, he adds, “in my case, it should be applicable the other way round.”
The author is with policy, research, campaigns, Oxfam India