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Dowry, society and Indian women

By The Assam Tribune
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Dr Shikha Jyoti Deka

Dowry is the money, goods, parental property or estate that a woman brings to her husband upon marriage. It is a deeply-rooted evil cultural and widely-prevalent social violence against women. In India, the existence of dowry could be traced to the ancient times. Even the institution of dowry was a legal way to get married during the British colonial period. In contemporary era, dowry has become a social practice that extends the exploitation and maltreatment of women in the country.

Dowry is illegal and prohibited under specific Indian laws. Many laws are created to uproot the practice. In the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, ‘dowry’ means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person; at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of said parties.

Demand for dowry and dowry deaths are quite common even in today’s era despite taking or giving dowry has been criminalized by law as early as 1961. But, it is a brutal reality and still a significant part of Indian marriage and is openly challenging laws and failing women empowerment. The number of cases filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act witnessed a rise from 690 in 2018 to 739 in 2019. The number had stood at 727 in 2017. The number of dowry deaths saw a jump from 48 in 2018 to 52 in 2019. The police pointed out that the nature of cases has become ‘more disturbing and serious, often involving attacks on women who are victimized by the socio-economic menace’. There are many cases that go unreported.

Even today, despite efforts on the part of the Indian Government, social activists and feminist organizations, not much has changed in the country. Dowry is still practised in cities, in villages, and even by the highly-educated people in the name of tradition resulting in great financial burden on the bride’s parents.

An irrational system of dowry could only survive till ages because of the social system and atmosphere that promoted it. The gender inequality that prevails in Indian society is highly responsible for the continuation of the institution of dowry. Society considers women as subordinate to men. Though many efforts are made to glorify women, however, due to the patriarchal mindset, women are sidelined when it comes to their empowerment. The status allotted to women in society entrenched the attitude of ‘inferior to men’, which further led to the idea of dowry. Now, getting married without dowry means the greatness of the groom and marrying with dowry means the groom is in a secure job with good earnings. In both the cases, no one wants to know what the girl wants and what she does. That is why despite being competent she still depends on her husband.

The justification for the prevalence of dowry culture is the unreasonable customs and traditions. Orthodox thinking or ‘want to follow’ mentally is obstructing the end of the dowry system. People are unwilling to change. Also some gift taking and gift giving culture is religiously sanctioned. Therefore, people feel that it is customary. For example, in some regions, during Hindu rites of kanyadan, some gold is customary to be given to the groom by the bride’s parents. Many educated families practise it, willingly or unwillingly, to avoid being criticized for not following the traditions.

In many cases the bride’s parent’s emotion becomes a barrier in removing the dowry trend in India. Parent’s mentality of “want to give something to her, without asking (by in-laws)” encourages this evil culture. There is also a tendency of the parents to make all necessary arrangements just to comfort their daughter at her in-laws place. The older generation still believe that the groom’s side has the right to hurt their daughter just for some material things.

The most important reason is the supremacy of the institution of marriage. It is believed that women cannot survive alone in society. After parents, she should have a person standing behind her. Due to this frame of mind, many parents even do not hesitate to provide dowry in return for their daughter’s secured married life. Because, in certain areas and in some strata of society, the ability to pay dowry does affect getting a suitable match.

Dowry is just like a slow poison, which kills women’s dignity, self-respect and right to live a peaceful life. The custom has long been blamed for Indian families preferring to have boys and considering daughters merely as ‘liability’. The dowry system is criticized for illiteracy and inadequate education of girls, as parents prefer to save money for her marriage instead of investing in her education.

Despite being a crime, the dowry system gets an open passage in the society and thus our country is an epicentre of this evil culture. The need of the hour is to bring a change in the prevailing system. Social awareness can be the biggest solution to this problem. Social change can start from the family. Parents should invest money and time in providing a proper nurture and better future to their children. Parents should take firm stands against these kinds of practices. It is also important on the part of the government, media, NGOs, non-profit institutions to play a more responsible, transparent and sensitive role. The need of organizing more workshops, seminars and discussions on this issue cannot be denied.

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