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Deep-rooted Disease

By Anjali Modi

The Hindu
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 a dowry.

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 against them.

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 no support.

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.


Dowry Scene
in Different

West Bengal