Updated: Oct 21, 2020
*An eligible groom approaches the stands* “One lakh” a voice from the back “Two lakhs!” another voice echoes “Five lakhs” “Seven lakhs” “Ten lakh rupees!” someone said definitively as the bride’s family shuddered in the corner of the room, watching the groom’s family decide their precious son’s worth, trying to estimate all the money they have saved up and realising they fall short, by a lot. “SOLD.” The big, fat Indian wedding with its age-old regressive traditions concealed within all the celebration. One of the very prevalent ones being Dowry. Although it was declared illegal to give or receive Dowry in 1961 (Dowry Prohibition Act), to this day families, rich or poor, educated or not, partake in this terrible custom. Hearing the truth has never been our forte, but let us call Dowry what it is : a crime. A crime so many commit, nay, even expected to commit, nonetheless, is blatantly overlooked. Dowry: A societal attack on women Bhavani, a doctor from Hyderabad (2015), Manjula, a PhD scholar from IIT Delhi (2017), Divya, a CA from Tamil Nadu (2017) are some among the countless young women lost due to the pressure of dowry. It has had a cascading effect on people’s lives and is the reason for deaths, or should we say murders, of so many in this country, even earning a name of its own: Dowry deaths. It is a common occurrence even today and it has been observed that around 20 women die every day in the pretext of dowry. In 2018 alone there were 7,166 reported dowry deaths in India with so many other cases that go unreported. Women trapped in such toxic environments show a drastic decline in physical and mental health, experience domestic violence, sexual harassment, debt stress, and despite all this are expected to cater to the needs of their abusers. Dowry is also responsible for a sex ratio unfavourable to women and the alarming number of female foeticides in India. This is because women, young, infant, and unborn girls are looked at as a burden and are so cruelly mistreated for no fault of their own, other than the fact that they were born as females. One would normally expect a law against the perpetrators of such crimes, and there is. Under Section 498 of the IPC, the husband or relative of the husband of a woman subjecting her to harassment is punishable with imprisonment. This was mainly introduced to protect women against dowry deaths and while on paper it seems just, the reality is far from it as the conviction rate remains a low 34.7%. While, it is argued that some false cases are also charged under this section, it does not change the fact that so many, guilty of these actions, roam free. There is also a great percentage of people who withdraw their complaints and a greater percentage of those do not even file a complaint.
Dowry and poverty
This institution has brought the marginalised communities to their knees. Families resort to
borrowing money from illegitimate sources, such as money lenders who demand a high interest
rate, to afford the cost of their daughter’s elaborate wedding and dowry. Consequently, they
spend the rest of their lives trying to repay these debts. Some are forced into labor work and
some, unable to repay through any means, end up taking their own lives. An extensive study
conducted in 2011 showed that lower women’s literacy rate, less exposure to media, and poor
socio-economic background were the main catalysts of dowry deaths. The women I mentioned
in the previous section had decent jobs and income, yet they fell prey to dowry and societal
norms. So one can only imagine the plight of a financially dependent woman coming from an
economically weaker background. But is the situation all that better for the educated, city-bred
Gifts, future investments, etc. : A masquerade party of misogynists
A common misconception is that “modern” people refrain from “ancient” practices like dowry.
That is true indeed, because such families expect gifts like gold or a lavish wedding paid fully
by the bride's family in exchange for a son in law who is a respectable civil servant, a doctor, or
an NRI and earns more than enough on his own. Need I state the irony that is the modern
Indian man? This reminds me of a particular episode of this Indian show called Made in
Heaven, where a rather privileged, liberal couple in love decide to get married. But at the
wedding, when the bride finds out that the groom and his family have demanded a huge amount
of dowry and he tries to justify that “it was for THEIR future”, she walks out on him. This was a
pretty powerful scene because first of all, the way she showed him his place was fantastic and
also because it reflects the ingrained prejudice that prevails in the supposedly educated minds.
Can we hope for change?
While education and spreading awareness are key in bringing about change, the “Dowry is a
social evil” in our textbooks hasn’t had quite the impact we would expect. In an article written by
Shalini Dixit, an assistant professor in NIAS, Bengaluru, she talks about how cultural
conditioning dominates over education to influence a woman to prioritize familial obligation and
societal expectation above all. To tackle this, she suggests the incorporation of an “emotional
education” where students share different experiences and learn to communicate and process
their emotions. It might be a great way to teach children about conflict resolution and the
importance of empathy. This, along with a more inclusive sex education curriculum that talks
about equality and consent, can be a step in the right direction to bridge the gap between the
genders. While it does sound a bit idealistic, if such methods of learning reach schools in
different sections of society, it makes for a well-founded long-term solution to eradicate
conscious attempt to bring about that change.