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Vismaya’s Dowry Case In Kerala: The Demon That Continues To Prey On Indian Women

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Vismaya’s brutal death has become national news by now. One of the most notorious evils in society has claimed her life. And that is dowry.

In order to start their own family, people have to go through certain rituals and abide by the rules of the social institution called marriage. Exchanging gifts between families is customary in marriages, then what is the role of dowry?

Many women in India did not have access to education till recent times. They were and still are expected to leave their homes and live their life after marriage with their husband. So, when a parent “gives away” their girl child, why are they giving money, gold, property etc. to the guy?

Often, dowry is an indicator of how the bride’s family has brought her up and some of the wealth is given to the bridegroom and his family so that they can provide the same lifestyle that she is used to at her home.

However, there are multiple explanations for dowry. For example, when educated men were far and few, it became a norm to give hefty dowry to them for marrying daughters of rich and influential people. As the dowry system spread to all sections of society, it became a status symbol.

When an individual is getting married, it is customary to ask their parents how much dowry are they giving/getting. In some communities, the groom’s family clearly state their dowry expectation to the bride’s family, while in others, the bride’s family is expected to give what they can. Another way in which dowry sometimes works is by seeing it as a part of the family’s inheritance being passed on to the girl as she would no longer be living in the house.

Earlier, and in some cases, even today, girls were not allowed to go out of their houses. Families of the bride and groom would decide when the marriage should take place and take all the other decisions without the consent of the ones getting married. The bride and the groom would see each other’s face only on the night after marriage.

Those were not marriages, they were alliance between families because all that mattered was compatibility between families, in terms of wealth, influence and social status. One of the reasons why parents oppose love marriages even now stems from this. They are looking for alliances that will bolster their social status. And when a two people choose each other, their family, wealth and social status become irrelevant.

Marriages in India are far too complicated. Hindus have a caste-based society with castes and sub-castes within each caste. Alliances are first searched within one’s sub-caste and then within the caste. Astrological compatibility kicks in first, then comes the compatibility between families, their social status, and so on. All of these act as filters that help to zero in on that one-perfect profile.

There is another layer of complication, too. When a woman turns 21, conversations around her marriage start happening. Then, society takes over. Details about the woman and her family travel far and wide within their community, and proposals start coming in. In a year or two, her marriage gets done with. So essentially, most women get married through alliances found in this way or through love marriage.

When my parents started looking for a bride for me, they put up my profile on all matrimony sites, even in newspapers. What they came across were profiles of women who were not compatible with me astrologically and the ones who were did not have physical compatibility with me.

A few proposals that came through contacts fell through because of astrological incompatibility. My parents also got calls from parents of women asking what our demands were. They didn’t know how to respond. Most of these calls were from the southern side of Kerala. where it is customary to give dowry and literally buy men. In one instance, the parents of a woman even said that their daughter would continue staying with them after marriage, and so I would have to shift to their house.

Now to Vismaya’s case. She was pursuing a professional course to become an Ayurvedic doctor and was 23 years old when she was married off. Twenty-three is borderline late for women in Kerala to get married. It is generally believed that till 23, women are flexible and can easily adapt to a new life at their husband’s home. But later, they start forming their own opinions, which decreases their adaptability. So it didn’t matter to her parents that she was studying. She was 23 and getting her married was more important. She was from South Kerala so all  that was given by her parents as dowry doesn’t come as a surprise.

What is amazing is how traditions endure in India with time. There was a time when men used to get dowry for marrying uneducated women. Now that women are as educated, or more educated in many cases, than men, the tradition of dowry remains intact. Why? Because social status.

Society expects the bride’s family to conduct her marriage with grandeur. What was given as dowry should be acceptable to the society.

According to news reports, she went to her parents after she was beaten and abused by her husband and when he came to pick her up, she went with him because that is what society expected her to do. Her life after marriage is at her husband’s house so her parents will be looked down upon by the society if she has issues with her husband and comes to stay with them.

Society always blames women for not having patience and tolerance, and not being able to “win over their husband” with love and by doing whatever they are asked to.

So where does the blame lie for all that happened to her? The astrologers who matched Vismaya’s and her husband’s horoscope and found perfect compatibility. Astrology is all about mathematics and calculation errors can happen to anyone. I have heard about an astrologer for whom 32+2 was 36. He was vehemently standing his ground that the horoscopes did not match.

Why couldn’t Vismaya’s family wait till she completed her education and started working? Why the hurry? Was it the fear that a job would empower her to make her own choices and they would not be able to impose their will on her? As a doctor, she could have had earned far more in her lifetime than what they gave as dowry. Then why?

In umpteen Indian movies, fathers are shown talking about the fire that ignites in their bellies when their daughter becomes mature and the fire increases with each passing day as he worries about his daughter’s marriage. Parents see daughters as social burden, this needs to be unloaded from their shoulders.

I am writing this to appeal to everyone to realise the dire consequences of dowry and early marriage. Moreover, giving dowry is equally culpable as taking it or asking for it. This constant craving for social status and endorsement from society can be handled only with social shaming.

A public shaming of the ritual can act as deterrent and prevent parents of women from choosing society over their daughters. To the bridegrooms and their families, sthree dhan (dowry), where sthree is woman and dhan is money, does not mean the wealth that brides bring with them. It means that the woman is the wealth. Understand and remember this before abusing a woman again.

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