By Shruti Sonal:
It happened four years ago, when I was old enough to understand things but not to have opinions worth listening to. I had gone to attend my cousin sister’s wedding in my native place in Bihar. As the house was bathed in celebrations, the women discussed which sarees to wear, and the men were concerned about what to put on the menu. I spent most of the days on the terrace, away from the noise, too fascinated by the open spaces I didn’t get to see in Delhi. A week before the wedding, however, the entire festive spirit faded away.
The groom’s side had increased the demand for dowry at the last minute. Everyone went into a frenzy. My cousin’s father had passed away two years ago and there wasn’t any other earning member in the family. The rest of the family, along with my grandfather, put their heads together in order to find a solution. Numerous attempts at negotiations were made, only to give in to all the demands in the end, as the bride’s side almost always does. As all savings were put together, fixed deposits broken, nobody seemed happy at all.
In my head, I was already making stories of how to tackle the “bad side” in totally unrealistic ways. I couldn’t understand how a marriage could be built around this strong sense of repulsion. I went to my mother and asked why we simply couldn’t say no. Dowry is illegal, all of us knew that. Her response to that observation shook me. We couldn’t say no because the same situation would most likely be repeated with the next prospect and the next. Moreover, time was a ticking bomb. My cousin was 29, already beyond the age considered ‘right’ for girls of “respectable families” to get married.
To add to the problem, she wasn’t really known for her beauty, which is judged by complexion. Too many proposals had been turned down by various families, just by looking at her picture. Being the eldest sibling, she had been forced to quit her education to look after the family. Being dependent on others, she had relinquished her dreams of a fairytale marriage long ago. Her younger sister was waiting in line to be married next. It was a bitter reality we had to accept, a reality that had existed in previous generations and could continue to do so in coming ones.
Before the day of the wedding, all the items for dowry had to be packed and sent to the groom’s house. Before being loaded on the truck, they were laid out in full view, for the ladies from the neighbourhood to come and scrutinize. They nodded their heads in approval. Our status in society was intact. Music blared from loudspeakers, celebrations began again. The relation between the two families improved as my cousin, ‘thankfully’, gave birth to a healthy baby boy, fulfilling the wish of her mother-in-law. The marriage, as projected in the society at least, is a happy one, without complications.
I write this not to present a grim picture, but only to shatter the myth that dowry is a thing of the past. Neither is it an obsolete practice, nor confined to any region or class. The societal pressures and stereotypes exist despite education (the groom was a journalist, if that makes you feel worse). Not only is it a practice that leads to the perception of women as a “burden” and thus attempts at killing them before birth, but also is the cause behind the gruesome practice of killing the brides when demands are not fulfilled. It is disturbing that 24,771 dowry deaths have been reported in the last 3 years. An issue that lies at the heart of multiple problems – patriarchy, infanticide and status symbolism – must be dealt with in a manner that goes beyond textbooks and legal terms.
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