Metrolife: When will dowry become history?

Chetan Ahimsa

The public outcry over a case of communal brutality against an eight-year-old in Jammu and Kashmir has forced us to re-examine our values as a nation and the priorities we place on building a gender-sensitive society. While such gross inhumanity has been condemned across ideological and party lines, other illegal practices that place women in subordinate positions are often overlooked.

Dowry, for example, continues to manifest and fester in various forms, commodifying half of our population and more deeply entrenching differences between the sexes. Although the system has been outlawed under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act and Sections 305B, 498A of the Indian Penal Code, it remains a major cause for crimes against women today, leading to emotional struggles, suicides, and even murders.

How do we rid society of this disease? Education may be the general consensus.  Yet, some of our textbooks themselves promote patriarchal and prejudicial perspectives on dowry.  A class XII Maharashtra sociology textbook cites ‘ugliness’ as the cause for dowry.  The book states, ‘If a girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes difficult for her to get married.’ It goes on to say that grooms’ families demand more dowry for marrying ‘such girls,’ forcing the latter’s family to ‘helplessly’ pay more dowry.  The same book also claims that when the marriage of an upper-caste man and lower-caste woman takes place, the groom’s family ‘has the leverage’ to demand more dowry since these are desirable unions for the women and her family.  Such discriminatory arguments and claims in a public college textbook reveal how gender, caste and economics are all intertwined in our Indian context.   

On an inspiring note, I recollect an incident that took place in 2006 when I was working with women’s organisations outside of Chamarajanagar, Karnataka.

We had organised an event where 5,000 village women had gathered.  The programme was proceeding as expected when a woman in her early 20s stormed up to the stage, stood before the microphone and without notifying any of the organisers, announced to the crowd, “His family demanded x,y,z! They said I wasn’t good enough without those things! You know what? I don’t want him and I don’t want them! Why should I get married to such a man? Why should I get married at all?”  

I looked into the calm, well-behaved audience, unsure of its reaction. To my surprise, village women en masse started cheering in agreement, standing up in a “you-tell-em, sister!” kinda way!

With awareness comes the need to resist; with resistance comes numbers; with numbers comes strength; and with strength comes change. The Chamarajanagar episode wasn’t merely an exception; instead, it’s a reflection of how what we deem to be ‘acceptable’ cultural modalities of silence and acquiescence are gradually yet convincingly modifying and ‘modernising’ even (and especially) on a grassroots level.  It’s our responsibility to catalyse this process further.  

Let’s hope that in a couple decades we’ll all be heard speaking of dowry in the same vein as we do dinosaurs, conquistadors, and small pox — ‘Dowry? Oh, that’s history!’

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