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Did Dowry Go Off Form?

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We are well-versed with the statistic that every day, 20 women die due to Dowry cases and are either tortured or commits suicide, or are abused and/or mistreated.

To really answer the question of Dowry going off form, we must look into the history that started it all. Specifically in India and concerning various cultures, communities and social statuses.

The historical prevalence of the Dowry system is a debatable topic when it comes to its inception correlating to the financial independence of women and their inheritance laws. In the case of women’s rights history, when women were married, Dowry was a practice to reduce the financial burden off of the husband and the in-laws upon marriage. Since the women were not allowed to work and earn, she did not have a claim over subsequent finances to call her own. Inheritance played into the picture. Although inheritance was patriarchal in nature, cultures and communities adapted to gifting or religious subtexts to have women claim some wealth, which was eventually taken into her marriage.

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According to Dowry Murder – a book by Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Dowry was based on Manusmriti – an ancient legal text that laid down the conduct of men and women in society. It explains the concept of Stridhan – a 6-fold property rule was maintained to ensure the financial independence of women after marriage. The concept even justified the rights of women and not the husband or her in-laws over the wealth that she brings into a marriage.

According to Veena Talwar, the Prohibition of property rights of women under Colonial rule, in turn, gave rights of the husband over wealth that a woman carried into her marriage. In addition to this, the evolution of inheritance laws, women employment, marriageable age, customary practices and laws of the land pragmatically changed but the nature of this practice began to take on an ugly and violent face as time progressed. The practice changed when it developed into Demand.

One can say that women’s rights (or lack thereof) added fuel to the fire that burned women throughout history. Right from birth, a girl was doomed to herself, her parents and her family by marital contract. The lack of education, employment or even basic rights of a woman were antagonistic and adverse. It is not incorrect to say that it was considered a girl’s fault to be born a girl as she was deemed a ‘burden’ throughout her life. Mental, emotional, physical abuse or even death was on the rise due to Dowry. Female infanticide prevailed, meanwhile the demand for higher dowry was seen in all classes, religions and cultures across India. The girl child was doomed.

The birth of a girl-child was considered woeful and if any girls survived female infanticide, their education was inadequate. The practise of child marriage was largely prevalent in a society that judged, criticized and prohibited females against any form of social, intellectual or substantial growth. Women were constantly scrutinized for being handicapped for their rights and god forbid if their physical appearance was not up to standard. Every ‘flaw’ accounted for a higher bid on dowry. Parents of girls were constantly subjected to pressure and shame in the name of respect for the girl and her future. The misery, sadly, did not end at marriage. Post marriage, husbands and in-laws would constantly torture the girl for not agreeing to their demands and this resulted in violent crimes against women. A society that did not respect the woman could not protect her.

SevFeminism was on the rise since before independence. Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 was enacted to prohibit the practice of Dowry and prevent Dowry-related crimes. This law prohibits the act of giving or taking dowry by either party in a marriage including advertising of wealth, gifts, property, goods etc. The Act itself had many loopholes and many cases went undeterred or unreported. Awareness against dowry gained peak momentum in the 1980s and several protests were carried out across the country to bring this abhorrent tradition to the limelight. One of the most notable cases was that of Tarvinder Kaur (1979) – a woman burned by her mother and sister-in-law all in the name of dowry.

Today, India is still battling the fight against Dowry. There may be awareness about dowry cases but the problem has become exponentially deep-rooted in all classes, religions, regions, cultures and practices. The evolution of dowry in the present times has reached obnoxious levels. Dowry in the form of trousseau, jahez or gifts is prevalent shamelessly against which demands are made and fulfilled to satisfy the families and to prove a social status. The concept of exhibitionism of what the bride takes to her sasuraal is tainted with aplomb. No number of laws, reforms, legal cases, feminism is still contradicted with measuring the worth of a woman.

With demands in place, the girls’ families are no less to set impossible standards of gifting that are taken as a benchmark to strive for. Education, social status, feminism is no excuse to put an end to the various forms of Dowry today. Moreover, it is considered miserly and foolish to not ‘save up’ for a girl’s marriage. There is continued mistreatment of women in the forms of abuse, ill-treatment and abetment to suicide cases among women and families of women fighting this evil. Who will dare to change the system?

  • Ayesha Banu, an Ahmedabad resident succumbed to Dowry pressure by jumping into Sabarmati river after recording a video of her tragic tale.

  • Rashika Agarwal, fell to her death in her in-laws affluent home in Kolkata.

  • A Noida woman fakes her suicide to escape Dowry-torture.

  • Dowry-related female infanticide highest in India: UN

  • A woman poses as a man and marries twice to extract dowry.

  • Cases of domestic violence, dowry deaths, suicides on the rise since Lockdown in India

Headlines as these are billowing tales of the consequences of Dowry cases, most of which go unreported or deaths that go undetected in India.

Social awakening and awareness against such practices that demean women’s lives are brought to light with social media. Several campaigns, short films, movies, NGOs, women organizations, books, podcasts that are outspokenly calling out this practice are gaining momentum. A recent anti-dowry campaign in Jharkhand recorded the highest number of Muslim families who have returned dowries to bride’s families, in solidarity. Pakistani fashion designer Ali Xeeshan created awareness against Dowry practice with Numaish – Pledge against Dowry. Anti-Dowry campaign by National Commission of Women to raise awareness against deaths and cases of torture, suicide amongst women.

Image Courtesy: Ali Xeeshan Instagram

In conclusion, the system of Dowry, which was initially established to empower women has indeed gone off form, but the world continues to fight against the many ways this system has crippled the progress of women in the world. Financial independence, women empowerment, education for women and men to fight this social evil is required to diminish it from its root. It is after all, shameful to think that a system so ridiculous still exists.

Written by Maryam Syed

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