Two decades ago, commenting on struggles against dowry-related violence, a senior social scientist had remarked, “It is like fighting the excesses of the Emergency, but not the Emergency itself.” We were reminded of his words when at a recent workshop held in the capital, jointly with the Indian School of Women’s Studies and Development, activists of the All India Democratic Women’s Association presented the preliminary findings of surveys conducted in the last three months in 18 states on the practice of dowry and related issues.
Of the almost 10,000 families of different classes, castes and communities interviewed, the majority said, “Dow- ry is inevitable.” In a red alert to progressive movements, the survey showed that even in states like West Bengal and Kerala, where such movements are strong, resistance to the practice of dowry and pride in simple marriage celebrations are being replaced by their opposite.
That dowry is very much an issue which should be of concern to those working among the poorer sections — “a class issue” as some would say — is because of the widespread nature of its practice among those who have been hit hard by current economic policies. A survey done in the Burdwan district of West Bengal among workers of an area where there have been many industrial closures and retrenchments found several cases in which meagre amounts received as compensation were being used for expenses related to the marriages of their daughters.
During interviews, not only in this particular area but also among all poor respondents in other states, it was found that most were in debt related to the practice of dowry; some had mortgaged their small homes or small plots of land. In areas like Assam and Tripura, or among communities like Muslims, adivasis and Dalits in which dowry was uncommon and never a traditional practice, the practice of dowry has grown in the last ten to fifteen years replacing bride-price and the earlier tradition of expenditures being borne by the groom’s family. More than 20 per cent of those interviewed in the surveys were Dalits.
Although in many other respects Dalit identity has been strengthened, it is revealing that as far as dowry is concerned, a practice that was never in existence in Dalit communities has taken over so completely, across all states. Equally disturbing, among the Muslim community, surveys showed that dowry demands have increased and an astonishingly high figure among Muslim parents with daughters stated that they felt their daughters could not get married without dowry. Shockingly, the Muslim personal law board in its recent handbook codifying Muslim personal law has included the exchange of gifts at the time of mangni (engagement) as being permissible.
Mangni is certainly not a Muslim practice and the “exchange of gifts” is nothing but a euphemism for extracting dowry from the girl’s side. Dowry is self-perpetuating as a factor in the establishment of a hierarchy within different social groups, in which families with only daughters are at the bottom of the ladder. Families with sons are at the top and families with both sons and daughters would strive to cover the liabilities at the time of a daughter’s marriage with the gains from the son’s. Many such families were quite candid in their replies to the questionnaire: since they had to give at the time of the daughter’s marriage they would certainly try and make it up by taking when the son gets married.
A common perception cutting across different sections was that the family izzat was linked to ensuring a “proper” wedding — the more lavish the wedding feast and decorations, the more the honour and status. Thus dowry, according to these findings, is not just a transfer of wealth in the form of cash and goods from the daughter’s family to the groom’s, but could also be seen as a means of increasing the social status of the girl’s family as well, in the community and in society at large. At the same time, since expenditures have increased so much, the pressure from her own family on the girl to “adjust” in the groom’s family to any injustices and even violence against her has also registered an increase.
As for giving their daughters equal property rights, it was mainly those who actually had no property who said that daughters should have equal property rights! The majority of the educated propertied families interviewed gave an emphatic no to the questions of equal property rights to boys and girls. Only in Kerala, a higher percentage said that they would give property rights to their daughters. The survey also brought out the different reactions among young unmarried women. An overwhelming majority of daughters in poor families felt that they would not like any dowry and were opposed to the system, but their parents would have no alternative; but educated middle-class girls said that since they were not getting property rights, the parents should ensure that at least the in-laws were kept happy. Thus, even knowing that they would not have any right over their dowries, these young women felt that it was necessary to buy them security.
Dowry is like an epidemic that destroys families. It is perhaps the only crime that has such widespread social sanction. In fact today it is not seen as a crime at all. Why should this be so' The existing inequalities in class, caste and gender equations get reflected in practices like dowry. The devaluation of women — and in particular the continuing underestimation and non-recognition of women’s work — has much to do with the false perception of women as burdens.
Dowry today has nothing to do with tradition. It is related to structural inequalities in our society generated by capitalism, particularly in its neo-liberal form, as well as by age-old caste hierarchies and casteist practices which have got new life today. The promotion of upper caste practices, including son-preference rituals in the name of Hindu culture by the votaries of Hindutva, have taken a terribly destructive toll on much that was democratic and woman-friendly in our traditions, practiced by the adivasi, Shudra and Dalit communities.
At the same time, liberalization has strengthened consumerist cultures and created social standards that judge human beings not by their qualities, talents or social values but by their possessions. The lifestyles of the rich and the corrupt, the blackmoney-wallahs, the tax-evaders — projected and multiplied a million times by films, TV serials and the like and brought to crores of homes through the powerful medium of television — have become the standards mimicked by all sections. Thus before our very eyes we see the marriage of Hindutva-casteist-patriarchal cultures with the forces of the market. These are seemingly opposed to one another, but in fact united in their brutal homogenization of Indian society.
Dominant mainstream politics today has no place for social reform. Those in public life could have used their power and their platforms to cry halt to a self-destructive practice like dowry. At the time of the freedom struggle, ostentatious display of wealth was seen as an affront to the nation and its struggle. Today’s rulers display wealth to prove their worth. Fighting for the abolition of dowry today also means fighting to change political agendas, to bringing issues like anti-dowry movements into mainstream politics. In this phase and in this age, the struggle against dowry has to be linked to wider struggles and not limited in its reach to women’s organizations.