Article ID:0408008@Last Updated:2005/04/11
The Dowry System and Women in India
ICU Institute of Asian Cultural Studies : Kamayani, Shingh

In spite of modernization and the increasing role of women in all walks of life, the practice of the dowry in India is becoming widespread, and the value of dowries is increasing. If a bridefs family fails to pay the amount of dowry demanded by the prospective groomfs family, the bride will be cruelly treated by the in-laws, and in many cases will be burnt to death. In this article, I am citing my own familyfs experience regarding dowry at the time of my elder sisterfs marriage.

Dowry has become a very common word and it is practiced in Indian society without any inhibitions or ill feelings. Dowry is a payment from the bridefs family to the groom or groomfs family at the time of marriage. Upon marriage, daughters are given all modern household gadgetry as dowry such as furniture, crockery, electrical appliances (in recent years refrigerators, television etc.) as well as personal items of clothing, jewellery and cash. Some parents also give a car among dowry items. The value of the dowry depends on the jobs the grooms may be holding at the time of marriage, ranging from 250,000 Yen to 5 million Yen or more in a country where a basic graduatefs salary starts from 6,250 Yen (with the exception of medical and engineering graduates.) The fact is that no good alliance can be made without offering the above-mentioned gifts. This system is more rigid in the northern Hindi-speaking region consisting of Bihar,@Uttar@Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana states, although it is against the law. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, amended in 1984 and 1986, treats the offence of dowry as cognizable and non-bailable, giving and taking dowry is prohibited, cruelty of others to the woman driving her to suicide is punished. Inquiries are made into any womanfs suicide or death in suspicious circumstances within seven years of her marriage. You can find a lot of information on this social evil on the Internet and in books available on womenfs issues in India. In fact, there are a number of books available in our ICU library itself. In this paper, I would like to mention my own familyfs experience regarding dowry at the time of my elder sisterfs marriage.

I come from a high-caste Hindu family - the Rajputs (the warrior class). It is a historical fact that the dowry system was and still is most prevalent among the Rajputs of North India. Therefore, the birth of a daughter in the Rajputs is not welcomed and in some families regarded as a curse, in fact, until the late 1960s female infanticide was widely practiced in this caste because of possible problems paying the dowry. Now the moment a baby girl is born, the parents start worrying about the dowry of this newborn daughter. They make supreme sacrifices to save money for their daughterfs marriage. In middle class families, the parents try to save as much money as possible, giving up their own comforts of life in order to see their daughters happy after marriage.

In Rajput families of Eastern Uttar Pradesh (the part of India where I come from), when the father and male relatives visit the perspective groomfs family, they are first given the list of customary dowry gifts in accordance with the groomfs professional status, and are asked if they can afford to meet the demands. If they say yes they can, only then they are offered chairs to sit on. If the bridefs father telephones the groomfs family, he starts the conversation with what he can pay, even before the bridefs father is asked what he can give! In this kind of social atmosphere, getting girls married ewellf is the hardest of tasks. Therefore, parents start looking for their daughters` marriage two or three years in advance, mainly because they have to negotiate or re-negotiate the price of dowry.

Under these circumstances, after three years of hard work, my father managed to find a Computer Engineer working at one of the top IT companies in India. He seemed to be a perfect match for my sister as she was an M.A. graduate in Indian History and was teaching in a High School (as a matter of fact, I was not involved in any of the decisions taken for her marriage.) Anyway, after going through the above mentioned ordeals, my parents and relatives were celebrating the fact that finally they had found a groom with a respectable job and a good family. According to his professional status, his family demanded some of the dowry gifts to be given in a series of ceremonies before the marriage as well as at the time of marriage. They kept on demanding more and more as the time of marriage drew near. They constantly harassed my relatives by adding to the list of gifts.

I not only point out people who take dowry but also blame those people who support this system. For instance, on the day of my sisterfs marriage, I remember when my father said to his friend that it is very hard on him to spend a huge amount of money on his daughterfs marriage, his friend replied that in order to get his daughter married in a higher status family, it does not make any sense to think about the money spent, after all it is his daughter who is going to bear the fruits of his hard work. Here I would like to mention that personally my parents are dead against this social evil. To add insult to injury, when I was heading back to Delhi, in the car I heard all my relatives repeatedly saying gOh, this marriage was really cheap considering the groomfs professional status. Your father is very lucky to have him as his son-in-law.h There is a competition among the relatives as to who can spend the most money on their daughters` marriage because this is a rare occasion where they can display their wealth. They think it is a matter of pride and status to spend lavishly on marriages. Moreover, even if the sons-in-law are not worth giving dowry, still the brides` parents give it to them, so that they can prove among their relatives that they also have money and a high social status.

In this social climate if a bridefs family fails to pay the amount of dowry demanded by the prospective groomfs family, the bride will be cruelly treated by the in-laws, and in many cases will be burnt to death - the so called ekitchen deathsf, or forced to commit suicide. Indian TV serials and movies depict the horror of this abhorrent practice ] of the way the dowry is demanded, the nightmare the brides` families go through, and how the brides are burnt alive. They educate the masses about the horrors of the dowry system and urge them not to take and give dowry for their sons and daughters marriages. As a matter of fact, most of the people are aware of the fact that dowry is a social evil but it is still flourishing. I do not understand why one of the most advanced countries in Informational Technology is burdened with this kind of backward traditional mentality!

To protest against these malpractices, young people, both men and women, should refuse to get married if dowry is being given or taken. Particularly, the girls should stand up against this system with all their might because the dowry system is responsible for the degradation of women in India. After all they are the ones, not the men, who are harassed, tortured, and killed if their parents donft heed to the demands made from the groom and his parents. The women should concentrate on their education and career rather than regarding marriage as their only way of salvation. Instead of having their parents chasing after the men of higher status, the women themselves should raise their own status, so that the men run to them, begging the women to marry them. With modernization and the increasing role of women in a productive economy, creating other ways for wives to contribute to their families` economic well being, one would expect support for the dowry system to diminish.