By Karina Kaur:
An extract from a modern Indian ballad:
We’ve got a daughter we are willing to sell
He is the bargain, the profit as well;
He’s coming to see for himself, so he said
How she and our money would look in his bed
Our daughter’s a graduate, he’s no cause to moan
She’s a well brought up girl with no mind of her own
She speaks English well, has a fair pretty face
And is Five foot four inches by Lord Bhagwan’s grace
Of course she’ll be happy, I’ll tell you that flat
She’ll have her own home, produce brat after brat,
Forget all her youth, as she spins out her life
In waddling behind him, a good Indian wife.
And she’ll long to have sons; they’re boons from above
Take it from me that they’re proof of God’s love
And when all her daughters are suitably grown,
She’ll marry them off as we’ve done our own
– taken from ‘Caste as Woman’ by Vrinda Nabar (2003)
The term dowry can be treated with some ambiguity within Indian culture as its meaning is both contentious and complex. Hypothetically, it is a large transfer of wealth made to a daughter at the time of her marriage, but, in reality, that wealth is transferred straight to her husband’s family. There is some vagueness as to whether this handover of money is to be recognised as a gift, an early inheritance or an extortion from the groom’s family. As brides, women have little control over how dowry is given and spent and are largely isolated from the process.
In educated upper-classes dowry has been justified as a compensation to the groom’s family, who invest in their sons education in order for him to earn collectively for his household. Women’s contribution, especially in the rural north of India is confined to the household, limited to domestic labour which is not given the same credibility as waged labour, although it is equally important to the running of the house. Interestingly, even women who do contribute to waged labour are pressured to pay high dowries. Therefore, largely, the justifications of dowry as a financial mechanism to support the groom’s family have been challenged.
Arguably there is a ‘marriage squeeze’; leaving fewer eligible men in the marriage market as a result of lower fertility rates amongst the richest and most educated. However, this can be questioned as there is a huge deficit of women in India. In recent years, the cost of dowry has risen incomprehensibly with the rate of inflation. A strong contributing factor seems to be the process of modernisation, and the rise of consumerism and capitalism in India. With the transforming economy after the Second World War, peasant cultivators began to prosper and as a consequence found it easier to borrow money for marriage expenses. The explosive power of consumerism and the need to fund it has contributed to the rise in dowry as a gateway to rapid affluence and consequently this has meant that the desire to have a son is far greater than that of having a daughter.
To a certain extent, increased dowry expenses have arisen out of modernity which has led to a decline in the appeal of having daughters. This trend coincides with the rise of prenatal testing technology which can determine the sex of an unborn which has exacerbated the gender gap in India.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to categorise dowry as having a purely economic function, for high dowry payments can bring prestige to the bride’s family. Many Indians argue that in order to secure the happiness and safety of their daughters, parents are prepared to incur higher dowry costs. However, this, in turn, gives the groom’s family increasing power to extort more through gendered violence. Research shows that in the preparation of a girl’s marriage, she is constantly told she was someone else’s property and as a consequence there remains a strict control over her sexuality. The chastity of a woman is important and is linked to the reputation and ‘honour’ of a family as a whole and, as a result, women are married much younger in comparison to other parts of the world.
The lowest age at which marriages take place are in north India and this runs directly parallel with the highest rates of dowry also occurring in this region. Interestingly however although the south of India has usually been put on a pedestal for being more socially advanced, states such as Tamil Nadu have come under scrutiny over increasing demands for dowry in recent years. Wealth and status are displayed through dowry and extravagant marriage ceremonies are typically funded by the bride’s family. As a result, weddings have become grander as well as gift giving within marriage ceremonies which is typically one-sided – given by the bride’s family to that of the groom.
Dowry is not just a one-off payment given by the bride’s family; gifts are expected throughout a woman’s life for her in-laws, for example during festivals, anniversaries and other marriages. The enormity of dowry has resulted in some households becoming impoverished and this has had a huge impact on skewed sex ratios in India. Ultimately, women are expensive commodities and men are to profit.
High dowry has had adverse consequences for women as the tradition cuts across most castes and classes and, as a result, newlywed brides face similar experiences, regardless of their background. Dowries can be as high as two-thirds of a household’s assets and this high cost involved in marrying daughters has led to a decline in having too many. Even families who do not agree with dowries will succumb to it due to huge societal pressures and this has resulted in dowry becoming the norm amongst all castes, classes and in more recent times in many regions of India.
Not only is most bride’s family expected to pay huge dowries, the bride herself is expected to move to her marital home whilst men remain rooted in their home in a largely secure position. Many injustices can occur against a woman if the demands of high dowries are not met; some families resort to dowry violence against the new bride which is rooted in power, and it’s used as a weapon to extract more goods. The male and his family are the perpetrators of this violence and it can be concealed easily as the abuse takes place within their home. It is not uncommon for women to be killed in India as a result of continued violence.
The male’s family hold a more powerful status in society and are therefore likely to indulge in bribing police officials in order to silence any suspicions of violence or murder. The term ‘bride-burning’ often heard in popular media refers to women set alight by the husband and his family when new demands after the initial dowry are not met. This form of murder is on the rise in India and is testament to the seriousness of the social evil of dowry. Women are disadvantaged even before they are born because of such a practice. Many families feel they are liabilities and, therefore, abort them. Famously, doctors are known to advertise prenatal gender identification in local papers stating ‘Pay Rs. 500 now and save Rs. 500,000 later’.