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It's No Different Here

By G. Anand

In the last ten years, the dowry system has permeated every section of Kerala's society, irrespective of class, caste and religion. Marriages are seen as an opportunity to enhance a family's financial and social standing. Families are increasingly seeking the help of professional "marriage consultancy bureaus" to negotiate and settle the dowry.

Even rural areas boast of air-conditioned marriage halls with state-of-the-art facilities. Jewellery and silk saree shops specialising in expensive wedding wear have mushroomed across Kerala as never before. In recent years, such businesses, which thrive on the dowry-based institution of marriage, have become the biggest advertisers in the print and the electronic media in the State.

Brand new cars, expensive electronic consumer durables and "pocket money" for the honeymoon have become an integral part of wedding arrangements. Even the Malayalam movie industry indirectly glorifies the dowry system. The dark side of the dowry business is subtly ignored for the pomp and splendour of the make-believe marriages.

Heightened consumerism and the Gulf boom are among the reasons being cited for the growth of the practice. And the high levels of literacy and social awareness have not led to any lessening of the demands for dowry. Though an offence under Indian law, the dowry system enjoys wide social sanction in the State.

Krishna Prasad Sreedhar, a practising psychologist, says the system as it is being practised now was not prevalent 15 or 20 years ago. Earlier, most marriages were within the family or the village fold. Marriage engagements were often between families that were well aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses. There was little scope to make extravagant demands and weddings were relatively subdued affairs. The social support system was such that family and community members would chip in to help the bride's family foot the marriage bill.

Jameela, a lawyer practising in the High Court, says that in the matrilineal Hindu community where the woman has right to her maternal home and property, dowry was not a traditionally practised system as among some Christian sects. She says that movies, television serials and blatant consumerism has institutionalised the dowry system in Kerala so much so that no one feels that anything is wrong with it.

The stress and pressure on lower income groups to emulate the rich in conducting extravagant marriages have led to debt traps and contributed to a mounting number of suicides in the State. Among the headload workers in the State, a job card is very often the dowry sought and given.

K. Saradamoni, a social scientist, says the argument that the bigger the dowry better the status of the woman in her husband's home is a total eyewash. The fact is that women rarely retain control over the dowry given.

In 1993, the cases registered in Kerala under specific complaints from women of cruelty by husbands and in-laws in the name of dowry (under section 498 (A) of the Indian Penal Code) was just 380. In 2002, the number of cases rose to 2,774. This despite the fact that only a fraction of such cases is reported. A police official said most of the complainants were from economically backward sections and that "it is seen that educated women hailing from the lower and middle class sections of society prefer to suffer harassment in the name of dowry in silence rather than seek police intervention".

A large section of urban women have apparently reconciled themselves to the fact that dowry has become a condition for marriage in Kerala. Some young women actually back the practice of dowry viewing it as a substitute for their share of the family fortune. Says Yamini, an MBBS student: "Even if the girl is highly educated, dowry does matter when it comes to arranging a marriage. It is utopian to think that marriage without dowry is possible in today's Kerala society."