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Culture & Religion

India’s Dowry Culture

India’s Dowry Culture

Associated Press

Associated Press

In virtually every corner of the globe women are denied basic human rights, beaten, raped, and killed by men. This happened yesterday, it is happening right now, and it will happen tomorrow. In many regions of the world, longstanding customs put considerable pressure on women to accept abuse. Patriarchal oppression is seen all over the world, where a woman’s sole purpose in life is to serve her father, brothers, and husband for the entirety of her existence. These women are viewed as second-class citizens and controlled, dominated, and undervalued by modern-day society. This lifelong cycle of violence is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men.

Violence against women has a long history in the world, but especially in India. The country’s extreme caste system, cultural customs and gender inequality have aided in the creation a male dominated society. This extreme gender inequality and the continuation of a “culture of silence” are the foremost reasons that violence in India has persisted.

One of India’s more extreme evidence of abuse is seen through dowry practices, commonly found throughout India amongst Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Dowry transactions go way back in Indian culture. Traditionally, dowry customs were an act of love as parents would gift their daughter with a dowry when she entered marriage. These gifts range from money to real estate and entitled a woman to be a full member of the husband’s family, allowing her to enter the marital home with her own wealth. It was seen as a substitute for inheritance, offering some security to the wife and was a gift from her family.

As times changed, the pressures of cash economy, introduced under British colonial rule, the dowry like many of the structures of pre-capitalist India, was transformed into a vital source of income for families desperate to meet pressing social needs. Under many burdens such as heavy land taxes, peasant families are compelled to find cash where they can or they lose their land. As a result, the dowry has increasingly become a common source of income for the husband’s family. It is seen as a dreaded payment on demand that follows the marriage, equating to a family paying a man to wed their daughter, in which the groom works with his family to demand the maximum price for marriage.

These dowry demands do not end at the marriage agreement, they can go on for many years. The birth of children often becomes an occasion for the husband’s family to command more money. The inability of the bride’s family to comply often leads to the daughter-in-law being abused, killed, or led to commit suicide to make way for a new financial transaction when the husband remarries.

The effect of the dowry culture can be traced back to the womb and is considered one of the primary causes for female foeticide, as parents try to avoid the life-long liability and the burden of saving up for a daughter’s marriage. This creates a disproportionate sex ratio in the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, it is estimated in India there are 1.08 boys to every girl- meaning to every 10,000 girls there are 10,800 boys. Male babies are typically favored and viewed as an investment because they receive a dowry from the bride’s family.

Dowry transactions have become a social evil and the families of Indian grooms make endless demands of the bride’s family. In extreme cases, the newlywed bride can be murdered by her in-laws or even driven to commit suicide. Many victims are burnt to death by being doused with kerosene and set on fire. The husband and his family claim it was a kitchen accident with the kerosene stove. Often, the purpose of the dowry burning is to afford the husband the opportunity to remarry and receive additional dowry payments from his next wife’s family.

There are numerous reasons given by husbands and their families to ‘justify’ a dowry burning such as; the woman was not fulfilling her role as a good wife, she did not bring enough dowry to the marriage, she did not produce a male heir…the list goes on. When foul play is suspected, the family claims it was a suicide and the wife could not adjust to family life and subsequently killed herself. According to The Times of India, on May 31, 2013, a woman in Mohali allegedly committed suicide after she had complained of dowry harassments by her husband and his family.

India’s National Crime Bureau reported that there were approximately 8,233 dowry murders in 2012. Keep in mind this shocking statistic only accounts for the number of reported cases. Families are often reluctant to report abuse to the police for fear of retaliation. It also takes decades for the simplest case in India’s overloaded courts to be decided, after which the litigants file appeal petitions leading to further delay and denial of timely justice for victims and their families. The National Crime Bureau reported that in 2012 there were more than 93 million cases awaiting trial and only a little more than 12 million were tried.

In 1961, India’s government created the Dowry Prohibition Act, which was amended in 1984 and 1986, making the dowry practice a criminal offense. But despite being illegal for decades, dowry transactions are becoming more uncontrolled and practiced. The anti-dowry laws in India punish both families, so burdens are placed on the women for fear of her family receiving punishment for seeking protection. These laws have done little to prevent dowries and the violence associated with them. Police and courts are notorious for turning a blind eye to cases of violence against women. It was not even until 1983 that India’s government recognized domestic violence punishable by law with the introduction of Section 498-A into the Indian Penal Code.

But why is this? How can an economically progressive country continue this rising oppression? Why are dowries still practiced? In the 1990’s when India transformed from a state-controlled economy to a free market system, the evil dowry custom became more severe with greedy grooms backed by their families seeking to get rich through their ill-fated brides. In today’s society, many view the wife and her family as cash cows. The pressure of this expense on the bride’s family is enormous and many families take out loans to meet outrageous demands.

This is troubling, not only because it is still occurring at a rapid rate, but because there has been significant progress with India’s economy. India has seen substantial economic progress and has one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world. India is a member of BRICS and is labeled one of the largest and most influential economies of the 21st century. In fact, Pratibha Patil was elected as India’s first female president from 2007 to 2012. There is no denying that the country has seen enormous strides for women in fields from corporate office to politics, however, multiple reports rank India as the worst place to be female. A Thomas Reuters Foundation poll recently ranked India as the world’s fourth most dangerous country for a woman, behind only Afghanistan, Congo, and Pakistan.

The traditional and customary practices of such extreme violence are often times exacerbated by social pressures. Women feel shame and have difficulty coming forward. They have a lack of education, legal information, aid, protection, and inadequate efforts from public authorities to enforce laws and protect them. India needs a cultural revolution. It must be recognized that the reason this violence occurs is because men dominate, control, and oppress women. It is imperative that their society works toward changing the socialization of men to be aware of the gender discrimination that exists. Because discrimination against women begins in the womb, a sweeping change in attitudes of both sexes is vital. The value of a female child must be equal to that of a male.

To combat the violence, the country needs to work towards changing men’s beliefs and attitudes. Young children must be taught in their home and greater community that men and women are equal. The people with the power – the judges, lawyers and teachers much change their ideas and enforce the existing laws. As a society, India must come together and reject the dowry process. If they don’t, then how can the Indian government possibly expect its’ country to progress while it actively hinders justice for half of its citizens?

Simply put, if India’s society fails to protect half of its population, it cannot be categorized progressive.

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4 comments
PS49793974
PS49793974

From the article: "Violence against women has a long history in the world, but especially in India. The country’s extreme caste system, cultural customs and gender inequality have aided in the creation a male dominated society. This extreme gender inequality and the continuation of a “culture of silence” are the foremost reasons that violence in India has persisted."

This passage and many similar references throughout the article demonstrate a bias or a basic lack of understanding the Indian civilization. India never had a concept of dowry - that word itself came in from Europe which had this practice when the colonizers came to India. The colonizers looked at the Indian custom of "Stree Dhan" and labelled it as dowry as they could only understand this from their own cultural perspectives. In Europe, giving a Dowry was very much in vogue and this was projected onto the Indians as if it were an Indian custom. In fact the Indians practiced a system called 'Stree Dhan' which was radically different from the concept of Dowry as practiced by the Europeans.

'Stree Dhan' literally means 'Wealth of a Woman'. Stree Dhan in Indian culture was meant to be given by the Woman's family as her share of her family's wealth as she moved from her own home to her husband's home. In one way, it provided equitable distribution of parental wealth between sons and daughters (this itself was an indicator of traditional equality of the genders in a family). This important fact is never mentioned in any western study. The second part of this was that, in accordance with Indian traditional custom, Stree Dhan was never transferred by a woman to her husband or husband's family - it remained as an asset to be used by the woman at any point in accordance with her wishes. This was a very important feature of the equality and independence of women in Indian culture. This has been not just recorded in Indian scriptures but also corroborated by observers like the Greek, Arrian, during Alexander's misadventure in India as well as Al Biruni in the 11th Century AD, around the time Islamic conquests began to ravage the Indian subcontinent.

So how did this change happen? There are two primary reasons. 

Firstly, prolonged economic distress in an ancient civilization.India's share of global GDP declined from 40% of global GDP to 3% in the 1000 years of invasions and foreign rule she has been subjugated to. This economic distress itself caused many social principles to collapse. Sometimes, resources had to be pooled together even for subsistence or for defending homes and estates. In British India alone, 1 out of 8 people died from famines due to the break down of the delicate agricultural supply chains built over several centuries. Many more were pushed to mere subsistence. Such a severe contraction of economy and forces of dire survival can break down the most egalitarian traditions and destroy social fabric irreversibly causing a noble practice to dwindle into a caricature of itself. Unfortunately, no western study will even want to mention this as it puts into an uncomfortable spotlight the very nature of western civilization and how it emerged from its own dark ages. One benchmark to look at in the Indian context is that Iran became an Islamic country in 20 years, Syria in 7 years and India was 85% Hindu in 1947 when it became independent. But Hindu practices had to adapt to the changed environment where Hindus were 2nd class citizens paying a Jiziya tax and even worse for nearly 800 years and then were subjugated colonial subjects for another 200 years. In such a timespan, many distortions and adaptations are made. Women's rights are kept in abeyance when a society is subject to violent onslaughts, specially if the womenfolk themselves were viewed by the invaders as booty to be captured and taken away as slaves.

Further, the status of women in Indian society had originally be far more equitable than imaginable by modern society. A review of traditional Indian scriptures that guided Indian society will confirm this as well as the universal consistency of that treatment across multiple formats of Sanskrit literature. In fact, the language itself had a very egalitarian gender sense with feminine, masculine and neutral genders being embedded in its grammar ab initio.

 

Secondly, as Indians stopped viewing "Stree Dhan" from its own original context of their own civilization, the advent of the Colonial British Education system led to generations of Indians with viewing the Indian civilization itself from the western lens. 

Today, dowry is the bastardized version of the noble Stree Dhan tradition. It represents the worst transformation of what thousands of years of economic exploitation, violence and what the imposition of alien civilization codes can do to a people.  In the vedas, it has been rightly said, that it is practically impossible to practice virtue when people are poor. Now Indians are not just divorced from their rich legacy, they are also indoctrinated sufficiently to believe that their society has been plagued with many ills and that they are beyond repair unless to subscribe to a whole patch work of alien prescriptions. This route to remedy Indian society is going to create a bigger problem than the original problem it seeks to solve. 


However, displacing civilizations and replacing them with an unproven model, uprooting knowledge bases and appropriating them in some form has been the hall mark of the western civilization. They have devoured the African, American, Australian civilizations as well as made very significant inroads into the Asiatic cultures. India is in perhaps its last stages and will lose its connect with its ancient past in the next 30 years. 60% population in a country of 1.25 billion people is below 30 years of age and they are mostly alienated from their own culture and civilizational contexts. These contexts have kept society progressive, humble, egalitarian, peaceful and that brought about some of the greatest discoveries in the nature of Human Consciousness, Medicine, Language, Literature, Music, Dance, Technology, Agriculture, Cosmology, Mathematics, Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, Logic, Psychology and much much more.


It is time the world begins to look at India not with a bias but with a deeper understanding that it has been resilient and at the core of India, Hinduism is a deep philosophy that is rich, gentle caring and holds hope for Humanity to evolve further to its natural state of progression - not as mindless materialists plundering one natural resource after another but as a race that is destined to converge with the Universal Consciousness.




Mina Hall
Mina Hall

Amazing to me is the women that support this brutality towards other women.

Worldturner
Worldturner

Something needs to be done about this....India needs to have an entity regulate the police force and justice system. No one is above them prosecuting them if they are unjust.

anurag
anurag

Female is denied her right to property as per customs.Its a shame that laws are frequently broken.If a girl is given right t o property then THE SO CALLED"CULTURE OF SILENCE" will eventually suffer a deathblow.

It has to be understood that gifts at marriage aka DOWRY followed by gifts at every festive occasion is considered a safety valve.....as somewhere,the girl's parents don't want their daughters to suffer physical as well as emotional abuse.

Female does not want these gifts to embark her journey for equality.She should be given Right to property as a male child gets.

I personally feel that expensive marriages should be done away with.A girl should be given her share of property as per parent's will.It will automatically raise women's stature.... Be it a working women or a housewife.

For a working women,its her in law's family esp. The Husband who enjoys her salary....though family expenses are jointly shared.....but then why there is need for expensive gifts for every occasion.

For a homemaker,these ceremonial gifts propagates culture of silence as they lift the self- esteem of the daughter.

It is to be understood that self esteem of a female is enhanced not by these ceremonial gifts but by a right which is duly theirs I.e.RIGHT TO PROPERTY.