Take any Malayalam movie from the 1990s or 2000s that had the theme of family and relationships. There will be that one sister or daughter who has been married off. The hero or his father works very hard to save enough money so that she can have a good future. Such female characters are used as plot devices to ensure that the hero gets sympathy or is likeable.
We never know what her dreams, ambitions or education qualifications are. In most films, they are voiceless background characters shown in socially constructed ideal womanhood (timid, obedient, disciplined). We just know that they exist in the hero’s universe to raise the stakes enough to know that he should make enough for her marriage.
This kind of mentality still exists among people who, once a girl child is born, start worrying about how they would conduct her marriage. The dowry system is something that is still practiced by people as per different customs, cultures, traditions and rituals.
Looking at a broader definition, dowry is the transfer of parental property, gifts, property or money upon the marriage of a woman.
In earlier times, women’s roles were limited to being a good wife, mother or daughter-in-law. Marriage as a system was about providing a home to men who took over authoritative and administrative roles in society. He brings home a wife to look after him and his family, and give birth to his lineage.
While historical texts still debate on inheritance and gender, as per their culture, it is the son who inherits his father’s property (except in Kerala). The only property daughters get is the dowry given to their husband’s family. She is dependent on her husband and in-laws likewise.
When it comes to today’s era, it does make one wonder how effective the education system is because the dowry system is still being practiced today.
Recently, a woman died by suicide due to the severe degree of harassment she suffered at the hands of her husband and in-laws. She was married off before she could finish her degree.
Her husband was given massive dowry in form of land, gold or car. Her husband started harassing her because he didn’t like the car and wanted that money in cash. Even her in-laws admitted that he wasn’t happy with the car.
As per reports, her husband injured her brother during an altercation. He beat her in front of her parents. But then, she was asked by the authorities to “adjust” and compromise. Due to the fear of social stigma, she chose to remain in her marriage. She sent images of her bruises and injuries to her cousin days before she killed herself.
Her story is yet another tragic case of how women are dehumanised to an extent that she is given respect only as long as she becomes the epitome of sacrifice and compromise. Her mother also persuaded her to go back to her husband.
As expected, her death led to the usual phase of outrage across the state. People are taking to social media to express their anger and dismissed the dowry system as a practice. This also includes people who will question the lack of gold around the bride’s neck during her wedding or question “how much she is bringing with her.”
We know that it is only a matter of time before this sympathy and outrage die down, and, more reasons to defend the dowry system are brought up. Or we see the usual WhatsApp jokes that describe marriage as an institution where only men suffer and women are gold diggers.
Last year, a husband killed her wife over dowry-related issues. Another woman was harassed by her husband after he lost his job due to lockdown for dowry. She killed herself. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan spoke out against the practice of dowry and harassment, calling it a social evil.
Every single person who has had access to economics and moral education in his or her school known that the dowry system is a social evil. Not only that, it is illegal under the Dowry Prohibition Act that came into effect in 1961. There are various sections that deal with domestic violence, harassment and abuse.
Apart from the legal aspects, the social status of women has changed in the last century. More women are participating in administrative and authoritative roles. Women are also breadwinners and give their share in providing for the family. Women also purchase a property.
Since 2005, daughters have the legal right to inherit their father’s property.
There is no reason to encourage the dowry system as a practice. The country should be changing throughout with their attitude against women. Still, the groom’s family makes demands and the bride’s family submits to them. Brides are then conditioned to believe that their lives will be completely dictated by their husband and in-laws.
Despite getting ranks in schools, women are discouraged from getting a career after marriage and rarely have control over their finances. Then, with the same breathe, men are regarded as the main providers and therefore, the dowry system is defended and excused.
What goes around, comes around.
Things have to change for the better. Bringing an end to social evil is still a collective effort. Otherwise, all moral education is nothing short of a waste.