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Indian weddings are a ritual endorsement of sexual inequality, reinforced through socially sanctioned forms of acquisitiveness

Just a couple of hours before her wedding ceremony, Ms Nisha Sharma used her mobile phone to report her in-laws-to-be to the police. They had allegedly demanded Rs 12 lakh from Ms Sharma’s father, and had even assaulted him when he had hesitated to comply with the demand. Dowry and mobile phones are both part of that peculiar muddle of ancient injustice and modern consumerism in which women find themselves having to experience their agency, or lack of it, in India today. Ms Sharma is to be lauded for having prevented a crime and for possibly saving herself the bother of what the police often call a “stove-burst”. Thousands of Indian women every year fail to do what she did — for more complicated or hideous reasons than the lack of a mobile phone. Taking, giving and asking for dowry have been criminal offences in India since 1961. But the continuing history of unpunished harassment, torture, murder and assorted indignities — across religion, caste, class and region — attests to the resilience of some of Indian society’s deepest and most primary structures.

Indian weddings are a ritual endorsement of sexual inequality, reinforced through socially sanctioned forms of acquisitiveness. The bride and the groom, as woman and man, are essentially unequal creatures, and are therefore, together with their respective families, essentially unequal parties in the marriage transaction. This radical inequality is reinforced by the other values and structures of a feudal and patriarchal society — principally through the power invested in parents and the immediate community to strip the bride, and to a lesser extent the groom, even when they are legally adults, of all social, moral and economic agency. And this entire mechanism is worked out at the most crudely material level, cutting across both arranged and “love” marriages.

It is significant that Ms Sharma seems not to have objected to the other “gifts” that her parents had showered her with — to the Sony home theatre and the Maruti Esteem, among other things. These items, and the other features of her lavish wedding, were not perceived by her as also part of the same inequitable social set-up which made her in-laws ask for the twelve lakhs. This is where the old custom of streedhan (for the girl’s future security and her parents’ social pride) shades into the criminal demands of the modern dowry system. There is only a difference of degree, and not of kind, between murdering a woman for not bringing in enough money or things into her husband’s family, and putting pressure on her parents to ensure that the wedding is an adequate expression of how much they love their daughter. The magic of these pressures lies in the extent to which they are internalized by the bride and her parents, sparing the groom and his family from actually having to make these demands in so many words.

The most “enlightened” of modern marriages could therefore reveal covert endorsements of these unspoken imperatives, as part of the normal attitudes and feelings which such richly emotional occasions naturally invoke.

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