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In the early days dowry was an institution in which gifts and presents were given to a girl at the time of her marriage when she was required to leave her parents’ home and join her husband’s household. But, in course of time, it became a crude institution resulting in female infanticide, suicide, bride-burning and other indignities and cruelties.


The problem of dowry has become a serious social evil among the upper castes and middle classes both in towns and villages. The rules of marriage, namely, caste endogamy and clan exogamy, and anuloma (hypergamy) and pratiloma (hypogamy), have been misinterpreted and misused for maintaining the dowry system. These rules restrict the choice of mate selection, as marriage takes place within one’s caste and outside one’s clan.


Further, a girl needs to be married to a boy who belongs to a family with a status higher than that of her family. This practice of marriage alliance is known as hypergamy or anuloma. When a girl is married to a boy whose family status is lower than that of the girl’s, it is known as hypogamy or pratiloma. Thus, anuloma has restricted choice and created a desire to give away a girl through marriage to a superior family.


A boy becomes a more valued object than a girl. The net result, therefore, is dowry: the giving of material goods and cash to the parents of the boy at the time of fixing the marriage, at the performance of marriage and even afterwards on several other occasions. This practice has become a serious social problem.


Magnitude of the Problem:

In India, and particularly in Delhi and other metropolis, dowry murders and suicides have become a matter of great concern. In Delhi alone, a bride was burnt to death every twelve hours. A total of 162 cases of burning of women were reported in Delhi between 1 April and 30 June 1983. This was an all-time high number of such incidents, and dowry was the most prominent cause of such a phenomenon.


The problem of dowry is experienced by all sections of Indian society, but it has become a chronic evil particularly among the educated middle classes engaged in salaried jobs and trade and commerce. Women’s organisations, voluntary associa­tions, the intelligentsia and the media have expressed their serious concern for finding legal and reformative remedies to curb the menace of this social evil. Incidences of the dowry-related atrocities and crimes have receded recently as a result of the social awakening created by various groups and organisations.


Dowry or Dahej is not a ‘gift’, a ‘return gift’, an ‘exchange’ or a ‘recip­rocal gesture’. It is considered more as an expenditure on the marriage of a girl, which parents are required to incur by force. Parents of a boy of marriageable age, who possesses the qualifica­tions that the parents of a girl are looking for, demand a dowry according to what they think is the ‘value’ of their son. There are no references to dowry (as we know it today) in the Sanskritic texts.


However, there are references to bride-price in the context of the traditional forms of marriage. There are certainly references to ornaments given to the bride. The Smritis also do not mention dowry. Dowry is a phenomenon which emerged in the medieval period. The Rajput princes, thikanedars and jagirdars gave away gifts to their daughters at the time of marriage with a view to exhibit their prosperity and superior status. In course of time the practice filtered down from the rich Rajputs and other twice-born castes to other sections.


Social Dimensions of Dowry:

English education and white-collar jobs have accentuated the problem of dowry. A boy with good education and employment becomes much sought after match for a girl. If anything has kept some pace with wider social and economic changes in India, it is the increase in dowry in terms of cash and material goods. Whatever new products come to the market, such as motorcycle, car, music system, DVD player, television, refrigerator, household goods, electrical appliances, clothes, ornaments, furniture, etc., have become a part of dowry.


If parents of moderate economic standing cannot meet dowry demands, their daughter remains unmarried; or if they manage to give a dowry, they get into heavy debt. Demands for more dowries after marriage have become a source of conflict between families of the boy and that of the girl. When the demands are not met, brides are harassed, tortured, burnt, or they commit suicide.


Dowry has also become a symbol of prestige for both the dowry-givers and the dowry-takers. It is considered a matter of dignity to give more dowry than one’s kinsmen and caste-fellows and others. Parents of a boy boast that their son fetched a very high amount of dowry, including a car, a plot of land or a flat, a video and all other luxury and household goods. Both givers and takers of dowry talk about these things and value them with a feeling of pride.


What is Dowry?

It is not easy to define dowry as it does not refer to cash and material goods alone. It has been defined as a share of a daughter or a sister in parental property, given to her at the time of her marriage. But dowry is not really given as an amount equivalent to a daughter’s share vis-a-vis her brothers.


Even if there is no substantial family property to be shared, there is a tendency among people to borrow money to meet the expenses of marriage and dowry. The number of people in the marriage party [barat], the number and quality of meals, presents to the baratis, etc., are all part of the marriage deal along with dowry. Thus, dowry is not simply the giving of cash and material goods.


Another view is that dowry is a gift, a token of love, given to one’s daughter or sister at the time of her marriage. Dowry, as a token of love, keeps her attached to the parents’ family even after marriage. It has become customary to give dowry. Marriage without dowry has become almost unthinkable. In south India, dowry is called stridhanam.


In north India, it is considered as a gift or dahej. Whatever conception or name is given to dowry, it is certain that dowry is not the right of a-girl who leaves her parents’ house after getting married. But it is also a fact that since a girl joins her husband’s house in Hindu patriarchal society, she is given due compensation in the form of dowry. Dowry is a gift, a dan. Even a girl is given as a dan. This is called kanyadan.

There is also an element of reciprocity because parents of the groom are expected to give gifts and presents, including clothes and ornaments to the bride.


However, this is an unequal exchange in two ways:

(1) The parents of a groom spend much less on the gifts compared to what the bride’s parents spend on dowry; and

(2) The gifts given to the bride remain with the groom’s family as the bride joins her in-laws’ family permanently, and dowry also becomes the property of groom’s family.

Therefore, there is not really an equal exchange or reciprocity in the system. Today, the fact is that parents want to give their daughter to a family of high repute and to a highly educated boy with a lucrative job or who is likely to get a good job.


Dowry is the price for these two attributes. Parents do not think simply in terms of giving gifts at the time of marriage, nor do they think of dowry as their daughter’s share in the family property to be given to her at the time of marriage. They try to ensure good future of their daughter, which is entirely dependent upon the qualities of the groom and his parents.


The giving of gifts and help to a daughter was quite a normal activity in ancient India. It was voluntary and not demanded. However, in medieval India, Mughal rulers and Nawabs demanded high dowries. The Rajput kings gave dowries to ensure that their daughters lived comfortably after their marriage. Dowry was demanded rather than voluntarily offered. However, the system was confined to the ruling classes, Rajputs and Brahmanas.


The lower castes had, on the contrary, a system of bride-price. Among the lower castes, a female member was considered an asset for family useful for agricultural labour and other traditional occupa­tions. Hence, the question of dowry did not arise.


In the wake of sanskritisation, the lower castes imitated the practice of dowry. Even, the poor borrowed money to give dowry. The poor Rajputs in Rajasthan started killing newly born female children due to fear of dowry. Bengal also had this evil of dowry in a pronounced form because of the institution of hypergamy.


Social Structure, Social Change and Dowry:

The nationalist leaders and social reformers condemned the insti­tution of dowry during the freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi writes: “Any young man who makes dowry a condition for marriage discredits his education and his country and dishonours womanhood. Young men who soil their fingers with such ill-gotten gold should be excommunicated from society.” However, these efforts did not minimise the evil to any noticeable extent.


The growth of education, salaried employment, migration to cities and towns, and scientific and industrial advancements not only increased the incidence of dowry but also changed its dimension and magnitude. Educated boys, with administrative and profes­sional jobs, became the most prized prospective husbands.


Those who worked in towns and cities were preferred as life was more comfortable in cities than villages. Motorbike, car, music system, television, DVD player, refrigerator, furniture, electrical appliances and household equipment’s have become a part of the dowry package among the upper sections of society, in addition to cloths, ornaments and cash.


The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 provides girls with the legal right to a share in the parental property, but rarely do girls demand their share nor are they given. The law is redundant. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 has utterly failed to check the growing menace of dowry.


The girl does not make a claim for her share in parental property, but the parents spend a lot on her marriage. The Act of 1961 prohibits dowry. Despite this, the practice of dowry is widespread. It has even spread to the communities, castes and regions which were hitherto unaffected.


Thanks to the efforts of NGOs and government for decline in dowry deaths between 2001-2005. In 2001, there were 6851 cases, whereas in 2002 to 2005, there were 6822, 6208, 7026 and 6787 cases, respectively. Only in 2004, there was slight increase, but again in 2005, the 2001 pattern remerged. Of the total cases in 2005, 23 per cent were from Uttar Pradesh and 14.9 per cent from Bihar. Madhya Pradesh too was not far behind compared to Bihar.


Dowry varies from caste to caste and from region to region. It varies depending upon urban, rural, caste and family background. Dowry is a socio-structural phenomenon. Variations in social structure, in terms of caste, class, ethnicity, religion, region and culture, result in variations of the system of dowry.


There is, however, a clear difference between the bride-givers and the bride-takers because of the rules of marriage practised in most parts of India. The communities in which bride-price exists or where patriliny is weak, dowry have not become a social problem.


One who is a bride-giver remains socially inferior to the bride-taker throughout his life, and, in fact, for several generations to come. It is not that the bride-giver gives dowry only once at the time of marriage, but it is a continuous process. The bride receives gifts and presents throughout her life. The quality and amount of these gifts and presents depend upon the status and economic position of the bride-giving family.


Dowry is generally given to the parents of the groom, but in recent years, particularly in the urban areas, dowry is claimed as a ‘right’ by the couples, particularly in the form of those items which are specifically meant for them and their newly established households. Some parents give dowry in the name of their daughters, fearing its use by the parents of the groom. Several cases of tension and disharmony have come up because of such steps by the bridge-givers.


The problem of dowry is not acute in matrilineal societies and in the societies which are guided by the prescription of cross-cousin marriages. Both are found in south India, and therefore, the problem of dowry is less acute there compared to north India. The Nayars, Tiyyars and the Nangudi Vellalars are traditionally matrilineal societies in south India. The Nayars of Kerala pay neither bride-price nor give dowry. The Nayars are a matrilineal and matrilocal society, with an institution of visiting husbands. The visiting husband occasionally offers nominal gifts, as a token of his love and affection.


The Tiyyars have the system of paternal cross-cousin marriage, that is, the girl is married to her father’s sister’s son. The bride-taker gives some gifts to the bride. In case the girl is married in violation of this rule, the bride’s family is required to pay a fine. The Nangudi Vellars also have the same pattern of marriage as that of the Tiyyars. A girl is given a patch of land as a gift at the time of her marriage.


These are not really varia­tions of dowry. Matriliny and rules of marriage in south India have not allowed asymmetrical relations to develop between the bride-givers and the bride-takers, as we notice in north India. However, dowry in its modern form has started appearing in south India also. Matrilineal and matrilocal system of family has eroded in modern times. Patriliny is being accepted as a natural way of living. Dowry is also becoming a fact of life in the erstwhile matrilineal societies.


In north India, bride-takers are not only superior in status, but practically dictate terms to the bride-givers. They dictate the items to be given in the dowry and the arrangements to be made at the time of marriage. One often hears in north India: “What can we do, we are on the side of the bride (ladkiwalas).” “If a girl is born, you accept your defeat in this world.” If anything goes wrong or is against the desire of the groom’s parents, it becomes a life-long curse for the bride and her parents. It becomes the cause of her torture by in-laws and, sometimes, even by her husband.


Dowry, therefore, is not considered today as a dan [gift) but a unwritten haq (right) of a boy and his parents. There are instances of a groom’s parents giving accounts of what they have spent on the education and upbringing of their son, and on other things, including the marriage. All this is included in the amount of dowry.


Some have even stated that the bride’s parents are required to spend a certain amount of money (often a couple of lakhs), and how this is spent would be left to them. Dowry does not include cash and material goods for the bridegroom and groom’s parents alone, but it also includes gifts and cash for all the primary kinsmen and some other secondary and- remote relatives.


The groom’s father exhibits the dowry to his kinsmen and fellow-beings with a sense of pride, expressing his superiority and high status. In north India, the girl’s parents would not accept water and food at their son-in-law’s residence as it would be considered a sin, even after giving an enormous dowry. However, today, enlightened girls and boys insist upon taking water and meals by the parents of girls at their residences.


Why Dowry?

It is difficult to suggest a set of factors responsible for the custom of dowry, but we can think of a tentative list. These include rules of marriage (including hypergamy), caste hierarchy, patriarchy, primo­geniture, low status of women, modern education and employment, a false sense of prestige, and economic prosperity of some people. Since dowry has become a complex phenomenon and a social problem, it needs quick and far reaching remedial measures.


Only legislation would not be sufficient. Legislation has several lacunae, and it is not easy to overcome them. Some voluntary agencies have started movements against the institution of dowry. These agencies have organised demonstrations against the incidents of dowry homicides, suicides, torture and harassment. Social boycott has also been done in some cases.


What we need today is a crusade against this evil, which has, intact, ruined several families and has been destroyed lives of thousands of women year after year. There is a need to chalk out a programme having both curative and preventive measures and long-term and short-term devices. The curative and long-term measures would include inculcation of a new ideology and a value system which guarantees a place of honour to women and their parents.


Young men of marriageable age do not become marketable commodities sold by their parents to the parents of brides in return for dowry. Egalitarian values are the only substitute for caste-based hypergamous marriages. Inter-caste marriages should be encouraged. Arranged marriages with demands of dowry must go.


The preventive and short-term devices would include immediate action when incidents of dowry deaths, harassment and humiliation occur. The victims of dowry should be provided legal and social protection. Media – both print and electronic – should highlight such incidents with all seriousness to curb the menace in future.


Street corner plays should depict such incidents as serious matters of life and not as a source of entertainment. Political leaders, government officials, businessmen and others must not be allowed either to take or give dowry in any form, not even in the form of gifts and presents.


It has become a vicious evil. A man who gives dowry to his daughter plans to take more dowry for his son. If such a thing continues, there will be no end to this social evil. Hence, the measures suggested above are the only way out to reduce the magnitude of the problem.





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