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
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."