The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- How a safety net becomes a deadly noose

Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime By Veena Talwar Oldenberg, Oxford, Rs 595

All through the Eighties, the media highlighted the growing number of dowry-related deaths in middle class households in north India. Often, these were filed away as suicide cases, but it pointed to a serious devaluation of women in present-day India in spite of a century and a half of progressive legislation on women’s rights.

There exists a consensus today that the custom of dowry has a causal relationship to widespread prejudice and violence against women. The dowry system is seen as the prime, if not the sole, explanation for two other practices increasingly prevalent in the subcontinent — the fatal neglect of female infants and the selective abortion of female foetuses.

Oldenberg, however, seeks to connect the construction of colonial interpretations with the present discourse on dowry and dowry deaths. She tracks the course of changing perceptions and functions of dowry over time. These changes are uneven and ongoing, and can be best seen on a continuum rather than as sharply drawn opposites of “traditional” and “modern” dowry.

In the late 19th and well into the 20th century, dowry was defined as the economic safety net in a setting where women always marry outside their natal villages and where their rights in their natal home lapse when they leave for their marital homes. Parameters of what dowry was emerged with great clarity in interviews conducted in Punjab villages in the 1870s to codify customary law. None of the reports described dowry as gifts demanded by the groom’s family. Instead, those interviewed described it as a collection of voluntary gifts of clothes, jewellery, household goods, and cash bestowed on the bride by family and friends at the wedding. In 49 separate volumes of customary law in an equal number of districts that constituted colonial Punjab this definition of dowry was reiterated. It was voluntary and depended on the “pecuniary circumstances of the bride’s parents”. Families wished to insure for their daughters a husband, and if there was unforeseen misfortune, the dowry would serve as a safety net. But this strongly spun safety net was twisted into a deadly noose.

Oldenberg demonstrates that dowry and associated wedding expenses did not cause the impoverishment of the Punjab peasant as colonial administrators claimed; rather it was the colonial dispensation that oversaw the transformation of the basic relationship between peasants and their land, and the simultaneous codification of customary law that led to the growing indebtedness of the Punjab peasant. These two intertwined events, inexorably in place by the 1860s, were central to altering the texture of women’s lives, their implicit rights and entitlements in their families as daughters, wives and widows as men became the sole proprietors.

All through the 19th century, imperial policies created a more “masculine” economy and deepened the preference for sons that fostered the overt or hidden murder of girls. Establishment of property rights for peasants, inflexible tax demands and collection regimens, and several other imperial measures prepared the ground for worsening gender inequality which in turn increased the vulnerability of women to violence. The protective legislation passed for the benefit of women was aimed at protecting them from their own cultural practices; it did little with respect to the ravages of the new economic policies.

Fixed revenue amounts and inelastic dates for payment of the revenue increased the vulnerability of the landholder and they were often alienated from their land through mortgage or sale. But the corollary of growing indebtedness was the pressure that was generated to deploy women’s resources — jewellery or cash — to rescue or enhance a family’s holdings within the first score years of the ryotwari settlements, when approximately 40 per cent of the traditional peasantry lost their lands. As men became the dominant legal subjects, its effects were disastrous on women. When marital conflicts, a husband’s violence, or drunkenness destroyed their marriages, women were left helpless with no legal entitlements to the land their husband or father-in-law owned. Meanwhile, their dowry might have well been spent on the husband’s family holdings.

The “masculinization” of the economy also made male children ever more desirable. The effects of recruiting the British Indian Army heavily from the ranks of the Punjabi peasants, particularly the land-tilling Jats, generated a demand for strong young men who would be employed with a cash wage, awards of land and eventually pensions. To achieve a “gender-targeted family” became vital and in those medically primitive days it could only be done through selective female infanticide. Despite the legislation against infanticide, colonial policies gradually worsened the already adverse sex ratios over this past century.

The newly enhanced worth of sons led some families to demand a consideration for a marriage alliance: specific amounts of cash (to recover education costs), jewellery or expensive consumer durables. There was a competition for the best qualified and best employed grooms. The idea that a groom’s family could make demands slowly infiltrated other traditional gift-giving occasions reserved by parents for their married daughters and their children. This trend, which started in the colonial period, has steadily worsened, even occasioning violence — the suicides of prospective brides to save their parents from the expense and humiliation of such families and the burning to death of wives whose dowries did not meet expectations.

By the turn of the century, this still rare social pathology of demanding a dowry emerged as a confirmed fact in Bengal and Bombay presidencies and the Punjab and it seemed to be infecting most parts of colonial north India.

At the conclusion of her rigorously researched book, Oldenberg believes “modern” dowry is a cultural crime, originating as an imperial legislated artefact. This makes her overlook aspects of socialization, the creation of the woman as a “gendered object” in which not merely the colonial state but social-reform movements, advances in education, growing literacy played their role. Despite the increasing violence against women, Oldenberg also makes a contradictory and not altogether pessimistic conclusion — that the rising number of violent crimes can be interpreted as an index of progress in gender relations. The growing violence, she asserts, against women is a desperate response to women’s growing assertiveness and verbal audacity rather than an indication of a worsening social milieu for gender relations.

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