Examining the Indian Practice of “Dowry”

Image via The Odyssey

“Wanted! Young, slim, fair, soft-spoken girl. No dowry.”

In India today, advertisements like the one above flood the matrimonial columns of leading newspapers. Families with sons feel modern and forward thinking when they refrain from determining the maximum retail price of their sons. Meanwhile families with daughters go along with the pretense knowing that dowry will come up in another, more socially acceptable form later on.

Dowry, technically speaking, means: “an amount of property or money brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage.” When it originated, a bride’s dowry was her inheritance from her parents. At a time when daughters had very little, if any claim to their families’ estates, dowry was born out of good intentions. Fast forward to today, inheritance laws mean that children of all genders have equal rights to their family estates. As such, you must be wondering why dowry continues to exist today.

Cultural norms live on even as laws change. In 1961, India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act. Modern day dowry persists, however, in two forms. The classic form of dowry appears as a list of demands from the groom’s family that must be fulfilled by the bride’s in order for the marriage to proceed. This list can include everything from money to cars to property to livestock. The other, more modern form, of dowry is exactly the same masquerading under the guise of one-way gift giving. The bride’s family showers the groom’s family with “gifts.” Not only can this lead to financial burdens, but it is also one of the root causes of female infanticide and dowry harassment.

Upon the birth of a daughter, families begin accumulating the mass of requirements for her wedding. Beyond fulfilling the costs of the many functions and the dowry, brides are expected to be adorned in large amounts of gold. Everything from toe rings and anklets to thick belts that circle the waist on top of an intricate silk sari. With expectations such as these, it comes as no surprise that an engagement is viewed with both dread and joy.

The expenses of a wedding are often enough to put a family in debt for a generation at least. Even after the wedding, wives’ families are often expected to bring gifts to their in-laws to mark festivals and joyous occasions. This practice leaves the wives at the mercy of their in-laws and leads to a crime known as dowry harassment.

Over the last three years, dowry harassment has claimed close to 25,000 women’s lives. An even more shocking discovery is that the most common cause of death in these cases is defenestration or bride burning. Women who refuse to concede to the demands for dowry from their husbands or in-laws are doused in kerosene and set alight.  This cruel practice is so rampant that when a crime takes place against a married woman, her husband and his relatives are automatically deemed suspects, should the police have reason to believe that the woman was being harassed for dowry.

Although I would like to believe that times are slowly changing, statistics paint a pretty bleak picture. However don’t lose heart just yet. Many women have stood up to their future bridegrooms and in-laws when the dowry demands became obscene; in more than one case, the bride has canceled the wedding and reported the families to the police. Demanding dowry is a federal offense, but it will take time for cultural practices to catch-up to new laws. In the meantime, we must work to ensure that fewer women are subjected to such harassment by in-laws in the name of providing them money.

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