25 May, 2003
This fortnight, a
young woman made headlines in the capital for turning her groom away
from the marriage mandap, because he made excessive dowry demands. And
days later a High Court judge in the capital ruled that the laws protecting
women from mental and physical cruelty in marriage relating to dowry
were being "misused"; preventing "reconciliation",
"increasing the incidence of divorce" and "hitting at
the foundations of marriage".
Nisha Sharma, the young woman
from Noida on the outskirts of Delhi, who called in the police to arrest
her would-have-been-husband in the face of social pressure there
were 2000 wedding guests had a family which until that point
had been willing to meet the dowry demands of the man and his family;
not once but twice over; providing a dowry not merely for the daughter
but also for her groom's brother.
And what of the court judgement?
Is marriage at any cost better than no marriage? When a woman turns
to the law, does she run contrary to the writ of society? Are her right
to life and dignity subservient to the institution of marriage? Must
she `adjust' and `compromise' and be reconciled to her lot?
This is illustrative of the
problem. The law protects women from marriages based on moolah; the
Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, makes it a crime to demand, give or take
dowry. But, few believe it should be used, and the women being married
and their families are among them.
Take Nisha Sharma, the capital's
new anti-dowry heroine. Until a demand was made, which was deemed to
be unreasonable, the young woman's family members were happy supporters
of dowry giving. They were willing givers even after they discovered
that the groom had lied about his qualifications. The marriage was arranged,
so it had to be gone through, complete with the two-for-one dowry deal.
The argument was: it's not
the giving that is wrong but the demanding. At the bottom this is how
most people see it. And despite almost two decades of campaigning by
women's rights groups on the issue, little has changed. In fact, an
AIDWA survey conducted in Delhi and 16 other States shows that the practice
has grown uniformly across all regions, and even encompasses communities
in which the practice was previously unheard of. Where once a man gave
a bride price, as in many Adivasi communities, now a woman must provide
The giving and taking of
dowry, despite a law prohibiting it, is open and as far as possible
ostentatious. The specially trained officials the Government was supposed
to have appointed, in the mid-1980s to police such situations
do not exist. In middle class neighbourhoods in New Delhi, dowries
including cars, white goods and household furniture are proudly displayed
for unshocked wedding guests to inspect.
Check the matrimonial columns
of high circulation English language newspapers and you will find that
`simple marriage' the code for little or no dowry appears
rather less frequently than it did 10 years ago. And `dowry' in one
form or another continues to be given through pregnancy, childbirth,
at festivals, funerals, and any other occasion that demands it, including
simply the arrival of a new gadget in the market.
If the demands for dowry
have grown louder and greedier, few women are prepared to marry without
a dowry. The AIDWA survey found that a majority of the women spoken
to believed that without a dowry they would not be accepted in their
matrimonial homes. Their status in their husbands' families was linked
to their families' ability to give. A woman's worth is calculated in
almirahs, TV sets and washing machines.
And there is no clearer sign
of this than the rising graph of `dowry deaths'. It spells out the fact
that a woman is dispensable if she cannot deliver on dowry demands.
Nisha Sharma despite being a dowry giver has become the anti-dowry supergirl
only because her story was so unusual in the usual fare of woman who
spend their lives being emotionally or physically abused by their husbands
and their families or in the most extreme cases simply being killed
off. This is a uniquely Indian story.
In the last decade, the official
figure for women dying because of dowry-related cruelty has gone up
and not down, from 2,500 a year to more than 7,000. The 7,000 figure
only reflects the number of cases reported to the police and not nearly
the whole story. Even this level of reporting is the result of the campaigns,
in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by the women's movements which focussed
attention on the deaths by fire of married women.
They forced society to acknowledge
that murder was the most extreme form of violence a woman faced in her
husband's home. It made the headlines, even if the emotional abuse,
the neglect, the contempt and the routine beatings did not.
The `dowry death' campaigns
of that period saw changes in the dowry prohibition law through the
1980s and to the penal code (Section 498-A and 304-B). The law finally
recognised crimes against women, specifically emerging out of the institution
of marriage. But, the campaigns of the women's movement and the changes
in law have altered very little on the ground.
There are over one lakh cases
registered related to dowry and violence. And instead of asking why
so many women, conditioned to be married and `adjust' to their husband's
families, are desperate to get out, or why so many young married women
are dying, the administrators of justice are concerned that their use
of laws created to protect Constitutional rights to life and equality
are damaging the `the institution of marriage'. For most Indian women
it begins at birth. Girl children are so undesirable that some parents
kill them off right away rather than wait for a prospective husband
to do this for them.
The more well-heeled and
technologically sophisticated adopt sex selection tests and repeated
abortions as a method of girl child control.
As a society we think nothing
of this. But, we wrung our hands over the plight of women in Taliban-controlled
Afghanistan. They had to conform or die. Cover themselves from head
to toe and remain illiterate. But even the Taliban did not consider
women so undesirable that they had to be killed before they were born.
The majority of girl children
who survive learn early that they have fewer rights than their brothers.
That they cannot expect to be treated on a par; that their parents carry
an enormous burden of having to marry them off. That an unmarried woman
has an unimaginably low place in the household.
This is what social scientists
call socialisation how we are conditioned to think about ourselves
and the society we live in. Those of us who do not accept this conditioning,
or are fortunate enough to have been conditioned differently, are labelled
`feminists', as if this was a word of abuse.
One way, many feel, which
would make a big difference to how women are treated is for them to
be given equal rights in property. But this is far easier said than
done. For it entails turning on its head the structures sanctified by
custom and tradition. The same custom and traditions that engender dowry:
that a woman is merely the ward first of her father and then of her
husband. She has no rights to property in either place. She lives where
she does at the pleasure of others.
And, in keeping with this
the inheritance laws of most communities specify unequal inheritance.
A landmark judgment applying specifically to the Syrian Christian community
has recently made a minor dent in `age old tradition'.
And why don't women fight
for their right to property, the baseline for equality in their parental
homes as Mary Roy, who took on her family and the Syrian Christian community,
did? Because they feel that it will turn even their parental family
This would leave them with
no social support if they are turned out of their marital homes. And
a woman can simply be kicked out of her marital home, because she has
no rights over it, unless she can prove that it was bought with her
money. It's a no win situation.
It's no surprise that the
AIDWA survey found that a very large number of women felt that since
they were not going to get a share in their parents' property, their
only hope was to get something at the time of marriage.
The laws that exist to protect
women against the ignominies of marriage and tradition do, as the good
judge said, create unbridgeable schisms between man and woman. Because
the law can hold him culpable. Women's groups and lawyers working with
women seeking justice agree that more often than not the woman's parents
are aware of what has been happening, even feeding the dowry flames.
But, they are all concerned that the onus of the situation should not
be put on the woman's family. Primarily because it would leave her with
But, while this is good for
women who are using the law to exercise their rights, it is not good
enough for society. The terrible truth is that little will change unless
the people who bring up daughters change. Because, they are the ones
who give the dowry, and they are also the ones who take dowry for their
sons. It is a cycle that must be broken.