Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 19


Antioch University McGregor 800 Livermore Street Yellow Springs, OH 45387-1608 Phone: 937-769-1874 (Office) Email: bmehra@mcgregor.edu

Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference of World Association for Vedic Studies (WAVES) Inc., held at University of Maryland, Shady Grove Campus, July 9-11, 2004

This paper is part of the symposium titled Samvaad: The IndDiaspora Experience organized on July 10, 2004.


ABSTRACT From street theatre to international conferences, from newspaper headlines to scholarly research dowry has been a charged subject any time it is investigated, written about, and debated. This paper presents selected perspectives on dowry from online samvaad at IndDiaspora, but is not an objective analysis of the various viewpoints. Starting with some reactions to a couple of recent dowry-related stories in the Western media, a certain view begins to take center-stage. By incorporating and appropriately addressing select voices that either support or challenge the central position, this analysis allows for critical reflection, unlearning and re-learning. The central argument is this: Indians concerned about dowry-related crimes must first learn whether dowry was traditionally meant as a way for daughters to get their fair share in parental property, whether the custom varied from jati to jati, and whether there was traditionally an expectation involved with dowry. We must also learn how the tradition degenerated to this point where it sometimes leads to horrible crimes against women. A more timely and informed societal understanding of dowry must challenge its definition both as the timeless stridhan or womens wealth, and as the lethal practice that allegedly provokes the murders of several thousand young women.

Truth vs. Tabloid: An Analysis of Dowry Beloo Mehra, Ph.D. Prologue I always say this, that if you are a woman born in the United States, you are one of the luckiest women in the world. Did you know that? Well, if you didn't know that, you're really going to believe me after this show. That was Oprah Winfrey1 introducing her show on January 16, 2004. She continued Imagine a place where it's not out of the ordinary for a husband to set his wife on fire. It's not out of the ordinary. It's true, and it is happening. Today I wanted to take you to the other side of the globe, so all of you soccer moms out there, here's a chance to go places you'd never normally see and have an opportunity to meet women you'd never meet. The reporter was Lisa Ling on Special Assignment. She reported from Bangalore, which she referred to as one of India's most developed cities. And she informed the audience that even here, hardly a day goes by without a report of a death related to dowry. Ms. Winfrey explained the situation for her viewers. Reports say that thousands of women are killed every year in dowry-related tragedies. When families refuse or are late on dowry payments, many times their daughters pay the price. Tragically, many of these young brides are burned alive in their own homes. The reason these women are killed or severely injured is because once the money runs out and the bride's family has no more to give, the husband's family wants to make way for a new bride and a new dowry. And when asked what happened, those who survive will say a stove burst or a kitchen accident to avoid further torture. A little later on the following exchange took place between Ms. Winfrey and Ms. Ling: WINFREY: OK. And I've heard that the more el--eligible the husband or the groom, the more the family has to pay. LING: Yeah, it's crazy. Some--some families believe, Well, we educated our son at Harvard, so that means we're entitled to more dowry. It's not--it's--it's completely illogical. WINFREY: It's crazy. That's why you're a lucky girl if you're born here. LING: Absolutely. WINFREY: OK. Lisa says that many Indian families are aborting their baby girls to avoid the financial strain of a future dowry. So they're doing that because it's, like, the elimination of women because women have no real value.

The transcript of Oprah show can be accessed at http://www.oprah.com/tows/pastshows/200401/tows_past_20040116.jhtm

LING: Yeah, I mean, given the pressures that--that--that families have when they have girls, it--it makes you think: Why would you want to have a girl in this society when are-all you're going to have to do is pay? But there are definitely people who are--are working tirelessly to change that. It's just a very slow process. Some more shots of victims, some more sound-bites from an interview with an Indian anti-dowry activist, some more analysis of the status of women in Indian society, a brief coverage of the now-well-known story of Ms. Nisha Sharma and her heroic act, and some advertisements later the show moved on to another story. Ms. Winfrey introduced the second story about an appalling discovery in a poverty-stricken village in India where many people have either sold their kidneys or want to sell them for cash. There is certainly no shortage of such interesting stories from India. But since my focus for now is elsewhere, let me highlight another journalistic attempt covering dowry. In October 2003, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes2 did a story on Nisha Sharma who as per the show, by speaking out and breaking the silence that surrounds dowry inspired other young women to ditch their greedy grooms. The program host, Christiane Amanpour went on to report: In most of the world, Nisha Sharma would be considered quite a catch. She's young, pretty and intelligent -- someone any young man would be proud to marry. Her only problem is that she lives in India where a woman is generally acceptable as a bride only if her parents offer the groom's family a sizable bribe, otherwise known as a dowry. It can cost her family as much as $100,000. Worse than that, thousands of women in India after the marriage have been murdered if they can't pay extortionate demands that often come from their husband's family. Later on, the analysis covered all the other dowry-related issues of female feticide and worsening shortage of brides. From Oprah to IndDiaspora: The Dowry Debate Continues A newly married woman dies in a kitchen-fire accident in Sonipat; another mother-in-law is in Tihar jail for a dowry murder. This is the stuff fit for headlines in India. Thousands of Indian women victimized by the oppressive tradition of dowry; a courageous young Delhi woman becomes a worldwide celebrity overnight. This is the stuff fit for CBS, BBC and CNN. But on our e-group IndDiaspora we go beyond the headlines. We look beneath the NoDowry pledges; we analyze the proceedings of an international scholarly conference on dowry; we discuss scholarly works that trace the origins of dowry to our colonial past and

The transcript of 60 Minutes show can be accessed at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/10/03/60minutes/main576466.shtml

that compare the visibility of dowry murders to the invisibility of other domestic violence crimes both in India and in the US. We try to make sense of it all through a passionate and honest exchange of views. This paper weaves together selected arguments from a couple of our dowry debates. In the IndDiasporic spirit of samvaad, in these debates we spoke from personal experiences, we engaged with others perspectives through passionate yet honest discussion, we broadened the scope of our discussion to include a range of opinions, and even through fierce disagreements we allowed space for multiplicity of views. For the present analysis, I focus almost entirely on the topic of contemporary understanding of dowry and not its other cousins that Ms. Amanpour or Ms. Winfrey obviously couldnt or wouldnt ignore. In the interest of a focused discussion, I ignore several other closely related issues such as pressures of consumerism and the recent trend of lavish weddings, while fully realizing the connections between these aspects. Starting with some initial reactions to Oprah and Amanpour pieces, I hope to take the audience into a few other related directions that we explored in our debate. I do not attempt to objectively analyze the various positions and viewpoints of my fellow members. Instead I let a certain position take center-stage and in the process of building up the argument address selected voices that either support or challenge this position. In order to give a flavor of the in-depth conversations and analyses at IndDiaspora, I quote extensively from some of the comments of my fellow members. My role has been to tie together some of these conversation threads and place them in the context of some of the recent scholarly work on dowry in India. It is not a typical scholarly paper; instead the objective is to highlight the authentic voices of a small group of Indians in the diaspora participating in a respectful dialogue on a sensitive topic. My goal for this paper is not only to provide an analysis of dowry as it emerged in these IndDiaspora discussions, an equally important purpose is to demonstrate how the centuries-old Indian intellectual tradition of samvaad has found a new life through this medium of online communication. External Criticisms and Internal Reflections The second paragraph from the transcript of Amanpours story reads, Her [Nisha Sharmas] only problem is that she lives in India.... In a 60-minute-long program in which probably Amanpour had only about 10 minutes, it is not difficult to guess whether she was able to do justice to these complex problems of dowry deaths, female feticide, bride shortage, arranged marriages, and consumer oriented India. Even a woman-oriented show like Oprahs did not try to present the story in a nuanced and sympathetic way. Instead the focus was to make American female audiences feel how lucky they were to be not born in India. In fact, Oprahs show had such an impact that on a yahoogroup called EndDowry, of which I am a member, an American woman expressed her outrage at the treatment of women in India and conveyed her interest in doing anything to change the situation. While admiring her concern and passion, I also couldnt help thinking how many TV shows do we need to solve the problem of corruption!

Several members of the IndDiaspora e-group admitted to mixed feelings they had while watching such shows. One member commented that perhaps many Americans needed to go through a periodic healing and uplifting of their psyche by celebrating the miseries of people in the Third World. She then continued: My stand on dowry and female feticide is that as Indians, it would be spineless and escapist of us to deny altogether that a problem exists. So what makes them qualified to criticize us, they're just as bad if not worse is a fine line for me to take to a white American. Not with a fellow Indian. Weve got to do better than that with each other. If we do not even acknowledge the magnitude and perniciousness of the problem to ourselves, how can we prevent future generations from building upon our apathy and mindlessly carrying forward attitudes and values guaranteed to corrode our society from within? The discussion continued about the difference between a legitimate external criticism and internal societal reflection on social issues such as dowry. For a while we also goofed around with the idea of doing what African-American feminist author bell hooks (1992) refers to as an oppositional gaze by coming up with suggestions for informative documentaries that Indian cable TV networks could produce on the various societal problems in the West. One member wrote: Why peep into other peoples lives when your own is an unmitigated mess? Is it because you feel that you can get away with it because no one will be peeping into your own house? In my opinion, there is something indecent about 60 minutes poking their nose into someone elses business when they should have been more concerned about the 100 or more date rapes that would have happened just over the duration of this one single show. But this external criticism is not just limited to media. In 2003 an International Conference on Dowry, Bride-burning and Son-Preference in India (http://www.soas.ac.uk/Religions/grr/conferences.htm) was held in New Delhi. The conference was organized by The Center for Gender and Religions Research Center of School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London in collaboration with Harvard University and International Society Against Dowry Abuse and Bride-Burning in India (ISADABBI)3. While I fully support the internal debate and self-criticism that is needed to address issues such as dowry abuse and sex-selective abortion, I believe our ability for honest selfcriticism becomes limited when such internal debates are made international through such institutionalized means as academic conferences. One member suggested that such

The International Society Against Dowry Abuse and Bride-Burning in India (ISADABBI) was created in 1993 to increase public awareness against the evil of dowry and bride-burning in India, to provide medical, legal, and judicial assistance to the victims of these crimes as well as to provide shelter, training, and rehabilitation services to victims.

internationalization of internal debates is highly uni-dimensional and is equal to pathologizing India. While discussing the rationale and relevance of such a conference, a fellow member raised the broader question of when is an issue appropriate subject for study (within a country and abroad), and who decides this. He continued: If we say that THIS internal matter is not a legitimate subject for international study, where do we draw the line? What criteria can we use? In my opinion, all social and cultural issues are valid subjects of study by anyone (within a country or abroad) as long as credible, reliable and ethical methodologies and culturally meaningful and sensitive interpretive frameworks are used. Limiting debate on such issues is never a viable option. Instead the need is for critical engagement with the discourse in order to uncover the complex reality. Reviewing the abstracts from this conference,4 one member commented on the wide variety of views expressed at the conference. He observed that all but one of the papers were written by women from the studied culture, and although many of the abstracts communicated that dowry was an unmitigated problem, this view was not universal, or at least many abstracts presented a more nuanced assessment of the issue. He interpreted that all these papers seemed to study dowry in region specific terms and not draw broad conclusions about the dynamics of the issue across India. He concluded: In short, it doesnt look to me like the conferences (stated or unstated) aim is to malign Indian culture and tradition - rather, to understand how and why dowry is perceived and what role it plays in different areas (mostly, but not all, in India) - albeit, with a definite negative view of dowry overall...What [the conference] will do is highlight the issue, and whether that is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion and agenda. (For example, people might feel that the best way to deal with this is low key, no publicity, social work - others might strongly disagree.) Assuming that all these scholars presenting at conferences like the one organized by SOAS-GRR are genuinely interested in working for the cause of Indian women, a question I want to raise is this - are they REALLY helping? Or are they further making it difficult for Indian women by taking away their agency as thinking, rational beings, and by connecting a social problem with the culture of these women? For example, except in one paper abstract, I did not see any mention of modern avatar of dowry as an original European tradition. This is important because as Anderson (2003) notes: Income transfers from the family of a bride to the groom or his parents (dowry), or from the grooms parents to the brides parents (bride-price), have existed for many centuries. The dowry system dates back at least to the ancient Greco-Roman world (Hughes 1985).
http://www.soas.ac.uk/Religions/grr/dowry_conf/abstracts.html Unfortunately, this link is not active anymore. In fact, the entire section of Dowry and Dowry Death Projects section at the SOAS-GRR website was not active at the time of this writing.

With the barbarian invasions, the Greco-Roman institution of dowry was eclipsed for a time as the Germanic observance of bride-price became prevalent throughout much of Europe; but dowry was widely reinstated in the late Middle Ages. It is well known that in medieval Europe and later, dowries were common practice among most, if not all, social and economic groups. Undoubtedly, the diversity of topics explored at the SOAS-GRR conference was impressive and let us even assume that the papers might probably have more nuanced analysis of the problem than what was clear from the abstracts. But it was still obvious that there was also a very heavy bias toward making dowry a uniquely Indian (even Hindu) problem. A member of our group, a Tamil Christian has often told us about the pressures of dowry faced by women and families in those communities. As horrible as a dowry-related crime is, it should be situated in the context of other violent crimes against women. While I do not deny the existence of dowry-related crime, I argue that a whole body of academic literature focusing on this and in isolation from the issue of universal social problem of domestic violence has a very high potential of making it a problem closely linked with Indian culture, which is not only bad scholarship but also dangerous. In her book, Dislocating Cultures, Uma Narayan (1997) explains: Most Americans that I have talked to about dowry-murder know that many US women are killed by their partners as a result of domestic violence. Given that many members of the US public know that domestic violence has fatal forms, why is it that they make no connection between the "foreign" phenomenon of dowry-murder and the "familiar" phenomenon of domestic violence? What are the difficulties that stand in the way of this connection being made? I believe that part of the answer to this lies in the ways in which domestic violence agendas have developed in the United States, and their effects on the ways in which the term "domestic violence" is widely understood. Let me explain what I mean. When I began looking through the articles in my files, and through several books that either wholly or partly address issues of domestic violence in the US, I did not come across any book or article that centrally focused on US women murdered as a result of domestic violence (even though I found a fair amount of writing on legal issues pertaining to women who killed their batterers). In all of the American "domestic violence" readings I initially went through as I began writing this piece, I found no data about the number of women who are annually killed as a result of domestic violence, though I found plenty of other kinds of data on facets of domestic violence such as injuries or homelessness. None of several American feminist friends I called knew off hand roughly how many women were killed by their partners each year in the US. Nor could they find this figure easily when they went through their collections of books and articles on the subject. We were all struck by the fact that it was quite difficult for any of us to find this particular piece of data, and also struck by the degree to which deaths resulting from domestic violence have not been much focused upon in US literature on domestic violence. A friend who participated in my search for the numbers of US women annually killed by their partners commented that she was surprised at the difference

between the "disappearing dead women" in US accounts of domestic violence and the "spectacular visibility" of women murdered over dowry in India" (p. 89). One possible rationale for organizing such International conferences and producing such journalistic reports like the Oprah show and 60 Minutes could be that by focusing on issues such as violence against Third-World women western media outlets and these academics help push the issue of violence against women in the West in the background. This only makes the situation worse for victims of violence in their own countries. Narayan (1997) elaborates this phenomenon: The population of India is roughly four times that of the United States. Given that roughly 1,400 U.S. women annually are (known to be) victims of domestic-violence murder and that roughly 5,000 Indian women annually are (suspected to be) victims of dowry-murders, it seems as if one could at least safely say that the proportion of the women in the U.S. population who are victims of domestic-violence murder seems roughly similar to the proportion of women in the Indian population murdered over dowry. These figures at least make plausible the claim that death by domestic violence in the U.S. seems to be numerically as significant a social problem as dowry-murders are in India. Given that roughly the same proportion of women in the U.S. population are possible victims of domestic-violence murder, it is interesting that one of these phenomena is named, noted, and made into a specific social issue while the other is not (p. 99). As we talked more about the comparative effectiveness of external criticism and societys internal reflections, a member set the context to further our discussion by posing two related questions: 1. What is the appropriate retaliation to deeply entrenched, systemic prejudice against our culture, and indeed against any culture? 2. As a community, does our rancor and sensitivity to external criticism prevent us from objectively assessing and addressing our own flaws? When we're done defending our culture and calibrating the exaggerations, do we rest content? Should we not have the courage to keep the searchlights on societal evils that are morally indefensible, keep them in our consciousness and fight for solutions to the extent possible? These questions are important. In the present context of dowry, these questions also force us to ask another important question regardless of whether we are evaluating an external criticism or internal reflection, do we understand what is it that is being criticized or reflected upon? One member presented the following caution: We cannot assume that external criticism is always more objective just by virtue of its being external We cannot assume that reacting against external criticism also means that one is against internal change. This is a false dichotomy. Gandhi ji, Vivekananda etc. reacted sharply against external criticism but both stood firmly for internal change.

So how does internal change begin to happen? It begins by finding out what it is that we are trying to change. Dowry in Womens Realities It is worth reflecting a little on the role women play in constructing their realities in ways that include aspects such as dowry and wanting to have a son. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves how much do we really know about these issues, and how our own understandings of these issues are colored by outsiders interpretations of our traditions. Some questions that usually dont get examined during discussions surrounding dowry are: What does bringing a good dowry do for the status of women in the family in which they are married into? What does having a son mean to her position in the household? How does her position change from a new bride in the household to someone who carries the family name forward? What associations do women make with the dowry (e.g. jewelry, cash, property etc.) that they bring with them at the time of the marriage? As Lena Edlund (2001) points out: The issue of dowry and the position of women is however complex. For instance, Kishwar (1989) and Saroja and Chandrika (1991) note that it is often the women themselves who want dowry. Moreover, parents may take substantial pride in giving lavish dowry (e.g. Epstein (1973)). We need to learn about the realities shaped by historical evolution of dowry in certain parts and communities of India before we make judgment on why some communities including their women consider it a status symbol if a dowry is given or received. For example, in communities where the custom of bride-price changed over to the custom of dowry only in the last century, giving or receiving dowry or even negotiating dowry (I draw the line at excessive demands and abuse) is their way of showing that they have moved up, should we be imposing a generic understanding of dowry as being less desirable? Talking about personal experiences or about the anti-dowry positions we took and the consequences we faced as a result of that would allow us to only understand based on who we are and what we have experienced. But the issue is obviously more complex. The fact that I am not a dowry victim or the fact that I and/or my parents took a certain position about it will always compel me to ask - why dont these women who are being abused by their in-laws for dowry take a stand against it? I don't think that will be a productive way for me to learn about their situations. Based on my privileged position, I am unable to understand why a woman laborer would feel so strongly about saving half of her daily wages for her daughters dowry. A meaningful understanding does mean non-judgmental acceptance of this womans position. How else would we understand if we dont accept that this womans reality is the only reality in which she is living? Can we honestly tell this woman that she should not be saving for her daughters dowry because this is wrong? Wrong for whom? Agreeing with my position that it is not possible for us to judge others situations based on our own experience, my co-participant in the debate further elaborated:


I believe society will not change unless one is willing to contribute to that change. But I would never compare my situation with that of a construction worker, nor say with absolute certainty that I would not act like her if I were in the same place... Or even for that matter compare myself with someone in the same social stratum with, say, terribly conservative, strict, and unsupportive parents. So this is not about faultfinding. It is about knowing what underlies this behavior, and there is no simple single answer. Different people, different circumstances. One of my cousins...an absolutely beautiful, talented, sweet natured young woman has entertained demands from in-laws that persist even to this day, and shes been married as long as I have! Why??? Because her mother threatens to collapse if she even hints at walking out on her husband. My cousin loathes the situation, blazes with indignation at the insults to her parents from her mother-in-law but she endures it for the sake of her parents and her kids. Whom do I fault? Certainly not my cousin. But I do fault her mother for sacrificing her daughter to the system. This member noted that some women may have perfectly valid reasons for perpetuating the custom of dowry because it could be the only way they get to exercise power and status. But she also felt that this oppression of women by other women was loathsome and misguided. The only way we can begin to truly understand dowry is if we start with a position of objectivity about dowry - that it is neither good nor bad, but that it is. A subjective antidowry position leaves no room to discover and accept that some women who are taking active role in perpetuating this custom may be doing so NOT because they feel they have no other choice. Instead they may be making this choice fully aware of their reasons and may in fact not even see it as misguided or oppressive in any way. Edlund (2001) found no clear-cut link between dowry inflation and increased discrimination against women, irrespective of the underlying reasons for the dowry inflation. In order to understand the phenomenon of dowry it is important to find out what is it about dowry (historically and in contemporary times) that makes it such a complex issue that it wont go away, and in fact it keeps reinventing itself. Interestingly, the more people are becoming aware of the evils of dowry, the stronger we see the hold of this custom among the very same people. Some members pointed out about the rising trend of dowry in relatively affluent families. It is important to note that historically dowry escalation has also occurred in other societies. There are reports of dowry inflation in Roman times and among medieval and early modern noble families across Europe. Dowry inflation is well documented to have occurred in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance cities of Italy (see, e.g., Chojnacki 1974; Molho 1994); laws were also imposed to limit their size in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but they, too, seemed to be largely ignored. Some of these samples, however, do not properly correct for changes in the cost of living and currency values, but recent work by Botticini and Siow (2002) confirms that average real dowry payments increased from 406.3 lire in 126099 to 1,643.0 lire in 142035 in the city of


Florence. China also seems to have experienced an episode of dowry inflation among the upper classes during the Sung period, 9601279 (see, e.g., Ebrey 1991, 1993). However, the general pattern in Europe was one of decline and eventual disappearance of dowry with modernization (see, e.g., Goody 1983; Lambiri-Dimaki 1985). The Indian experience of dowry increases and diffusion with modernization stands in stark contrast and remains unexplained (Anderson, 2003). Adding to the unexplained nature of the issue are several other questions. If women also play a role in perpetuating this custom, what could be their reasons for doing so? What about the women who make good money before marriage just so they can present themselves with a big dowry? How is this different from having their parents pay for dowry? Is one better than the other? Why? We also need to distinguish between dowry demands and dowry. When we start talking about dowry, we must also talk about how and why the custom originated, how and why it evolved to its present form, and its connection with the issue of womens inheritance in parental property and with womens position within their marital family. The modern trend of dowry demands by the groom or his family is much easier to address. It is absolutely WRONG, period. But in the interest of an objective analysis we also need to remember that in the communities which had a custom of bride-price in the past, (and perhaps it still exists in some parts of India) that too was a kind of transaction. Do we know if in those communities there was/is the issue of demand? What is different about dowry demand? What did/does the economic productivity factor of a woman have to do with the custom of dowry/bride-price? How were and are these things manifested in different classes/castes of society? These questions must be a part of any discourse on dowry in India. Dowry is also often explained as a gift given to the daughter at the time of her wedding. As one member of our group commented: I think it is reasonable for the parents to want to give their daughter a generous gift or gifts at the time of her wedding. What I object to is anything in the name of dowry given by parents for the groom or the in-laws' asking. Gifts given by the parents -- whether it be jewelry, utensils, or a full body mud pack for the future son-in-law -- should be accepted graciously and without analysis. Pointing out that nowadays many people may not make dowry demands but instead look for a certain economic status of the family, which assures them of a desirable scale of wedding and other material support that the couple will receive in future from the bride's parents, another member wrote: At one time, in Bombay, girls having bank jobs found it easy to find grooms. Other factors like scale of wedding, dowry, gifts etc. were not made an issue of in most cases. So, if the groom has a choice, is it wrong for him to select a girl who will be able to bring in money into the family? Not a very romantic thought but who ever said that marriage


was about romance alone? Also, this is about the girls parents wanting to land the best catch. If in a community the average price tag of an engineer is 10 lakhs, and if one has to beg, borrow and steal to raise that money, why not go for the bank clerk whose tag is perhaps 1 lakh? There might be peer pressure to land a doctor or engineer. Also they might think that their daughter would lead a more affluent life as the wife of a doctor than a clerk. I do know of men too, who are not in great jobs, finding it difficult to find educated and good-looking brides. Thus bringing personal choice in these matters of finding the right partner, including the economic aspects of such decision-making, further complicates the issue. It becomes clear that a simplistic stance that dowry is a social problem often ignores such aspects. A historical review of dowry demands may also be in order if we were to truly understand the phenomenon of wanting to land the best catch. In her book, Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, Veena Oldenburg (2002) suggests that the changed political economy during the colonial times applied pressure to benign customs to adapt in a way that made them vicious (p. 178). She discusses at length the work done by Rai Bahadur Chunnilal Bose of Marriage Reform League in early 1900s. Bose saw the demand for dowry as a product of the radically changed criteria for the eligibility of bridegrooms brought on by modern trends. These were in growing vogue in families where the prospective bridegrooms have received university degrees [that] are largely responsible for the growth and perpetuation of the custom [of dowry] in our society. The question of high education never troubled our forefathers in making the selection [of a bridegroom], as people had then not so much to depend upon higher education as a means for earning a living for the family (Bose, 1914, 8-9, as cited in Oldenburg, p. 178). The key matchmaking criteria in pre-British times - status of the family, its religious proclivity, and the moral atmosphere - became less important during colonial times as being a Government Servant or belonging to one of the learned professions was considered more responsible. Since university degrees are the passport to them, undue importance in naturally attached to these degrees (Bose, as cited in Oldenburg, 2002, p. 178). A good dowry of gold and cash was being used to defray the expenses of the grooms education. Oldenburg goes on to cite extensively from Bose and explains how the reduced status of women in this changing political economy set the stage for deterioration of the traditional custom of stridhan to its more modern avatars of excessive dowry demands. The following extended quote from Oldenburg describes the phenomenon: Since the number of such educated young men was small, it could be safely calculated that the price of the bridegroom would go on increasing in the marriage market. Indeed, [f]or every such eligible bridegroom there are fifty or more fathers throwing baits for their capture. The matchmakers vie with one another in making increased offers of dowry, and the father of bridegroom must be more than human if he could resist the temptation of selling his son to the highest bidder. Such crass commercialization of a


process that was formerly dignified and discreet, he lamented, appeared to be rooted in the predominating but erroneous idea of women being inferior to men [which] indirectly helps the evil practice [dowry] to continue in our society, by undervaluing the worth of our girls in the marriage market. From a nation which worships its unmarried girls (Kumari Poojah) we have so much fallen from this high ideal of womanhood that we now demand dowries for inferior worth. He insightfully recognized devaluation of women in the new order of things. Status now translated into material wealth, since the old basis of status in political power was defunct under colonial rule, where Indians occupied only the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy and the army. .Boses argument firmly attests that traditional patriarchal values were working in tandem with modern patriarchal values to create an ever-deepening sense of the inferiority and dependency of women, and that the relationship of power and genderhad tilted further to privilege men over women. Even the adverse sex rations that created a paucity of women did nothing to improve womens chances, since eligible males with modern qualifications were even fewer than women in any age cohort in both villages and towns. The dowry brought in by a bride, Bose ruefully observes, was no longer preserved as a womans exclusive wealth but was now used to pay off debts or to marry off daughters in the husbands family, and if the sum is considerable it is used to cover the expenses of the education of the son in England or to add to family property holdings, or to buy Government promissory notes. These were radically new uses for a womans stridhan, and certainly we can mark this as the beginning a trend (Oldenburg, pp. 179-180). Dowry and Womens Property Rights While trying to understand the need to distinguish between dowry and dowry demands and at the same time realizing the important inter-connection between the two, we also briefly explored the idea of dowry as a daughters share in parental property. Edlund (2001) has argued that factors other than marriage market conditions for women may have moved dowries. In particular, greater intergenerational wealth transfers coupled with differential timing of bequests to sons and daughters may lie behind the Indian dowry inflation. As if to illustrate this concept (though without any prior knowledge of Edlunds work), a member shared the following personal story: Of my 4 uncles only one made an incremental demand in excess of what was being offered and he is also the one that is the least respected and held almost in low level contempt. On the other hand, offering dowry without being asked almost seems to be a matter of ethical compulsion with some Indian parents. It is certainly seen as an indicator of good samskar or ethical values. I recall how shocked my mother was when she found out that grandfather had sold his ancestral haveli so he could raise enough funds for the last three of my aunts i.e. for marriage expenses plus the dowry. Backward, superstitious, uncivilized were some of the adjectives being thrown around. My grandfather knew that once his home was sold he would have no place to live except with my uncle (chacha) but there was an inner


compulsion which drove him to do this. My mother never quite forgave dadaji for a supposedly uncouth mindset, which led to actions like these. Fast forward to my own marriage. Being suitably modern and civilized, neither side made any mention of dowry - none was asked, offered or received. However, unbeknownst to us and as I found out years later, my in-laws had taken their ancestral property and divided it in almost 3 exactly equal sections - 1 section for each of their 3 children (my wife and her two brothers). Interestingly, this division was based on how the property looked at the time of our marriage, almost as if they had taken a snapshot at that moment in time. To this day, my wifes share of the property still exists in substantially the same condition as on the day of our marriage while everything else around it has been developed/ improved/ changed by the rest of her family. I ask my mother-in-law why that piece of land is just lying there, wasting away. Why does she not sell it and live off the proceeds? Her response? That piece of land belongs to [.] - no one else can ever have a right to it. The way she says this gives it the impact of a praan jaaye par vachan na jaaye type declaration. The conclusion I draw from observing the behaviors of my dadaji/ in-laws is that there is a very powerful ethical imperative at work here. It says that a daughter is entitled to an equal share of whatever the family owns at the time of marriage. Since the daughter leaves her parents home forever following marriage, parents are ethically bound to give their daughter her fair share of property. If they have readily available cash or jewelry, all the better. If not, one has to bite the bullet as my grandfather did in selling his property. NOT giving a daughter her fair share at the time of marriage maybe an indicator of parental selfishness, greed, bias against this particular daughter or favoritism for other kids (so, what's wrong with this daughter?). Or, even worse, a lack of samskars which, god forbid, could also have been passed on to the daughter. There are very strong social signals given off by parents not giving a daughter her fair share and the groom's side may well be asking themselves are we doing the right thing here? The exchange following this post further examined this issue of dowry as a daughters share in the parental property. One member commented: If it were a son, there would not be any hurry to bestow his share of property in a hurry. The parents would use up what they need in their lifetime and leave behind the rest to the son. Today, under the changed circumstances, I dont see why the daughter also cannot wait until later. My father did not give me any share at the time of wedding, but I am in his will getting half of whatever he leaves behind. Although my husband never asked, my father still insisted on showing him the will. Emphasizing that the fundamental ethical principle for the parent is that a daughter does have an equal and fair share of whatever wealth the parents possess at the time of marriage, the previous poster wrote back: But I don't think that this can be reduced merely to a transfer of wealth i.e. I am not


sure we can say that it doesnt matter when the transfer actually happens, at marriage or 50 yrs later. There must be a reason (or several reasons perhaps) why this transfer is timed to coincide with marriages, usually deemed by most communities to be the single most important life passage or life event in a persons life. The other participant in this exchange noted that women getting a share of the property left behind by parents could be a recent development. She thought that in earlier times, women's only chance at getting anything from her father's property was probably at the time of marriage, which is why settlements in the form of precious metals, cash and sometimes even landed property were made at the time of marriage. After that it was only the sons that inherited. This was because it was felt that the girl belongs entirely to a different family after marriage and had neither responsibilities nor entitlements at her fathers house after marriage. Which then brings up the related issue of a womans share in her husbands or in-laws property. In response it was pointed out that it is a given that a woman has the right to her fair share of the parental property. How she chooses to exercise this right - by taking it with her at marriage in the form of a dowry or not taking it with her in return for parental inheritance rights or for some other form of disposition are all equally valid. This member explained: However, like most other things in Indian tradition, there must be deemed integral value in going the dowry method (even if @ less than 100% conversion) and this may tie in with the point about a womans share in her husbands/ in-laws property. Consider the situation with my in-laws. It was a perhaps a good thing that they physically separated out my wifes share from that of her brothers. So, when the bhabhis came, everyone knew exactly what belonged to whom and what was off limits. Within 10 years, multiple changes and additions have been made to one part of the property and none to the other; nieces and nephews had been born with their own claims. If the property had stayed commingled, the complexity would have been unimaginable. All these questions about the connections between dowry and womans share in parental and in-laws property are thus more complex than they initially seem. One reason is because understanding economics of marriage requires us to consider the husband and wife as two individuals and also as one unit at the same time. And it also necessitates further inquiry into Indian culture-specific understanding of marriage including its economic aspects. Understanding the Past, PresentTo Make Way for Future Lets get back to the story of Nisha Sharma. While appreciating all the nuanced understanding related to the issue of dowry, one member posed a general question - who should be blamed or held responsible for the kind of emotional and financial blackmail Nishas family suffered? She argued: Here is an educated, working woman who went along with tradition and her family got a room full of stuff including two sets of appliances, jewelry, cash etc. Now on the day of the wedding, when the guests are arriving, there is another demand for more money


Yes, we absolutely need to hold someone responsible for such emotional and financial blackmail. And as it turns out, the people who did pose a threat to Ms. Sharma and her family ended up in jail. Not for extortion or blackmail, but for a dowry crime. There is a difference, and in order to understand it, we have to again look at the tradition of dowry in historical context. In her book Oldenburg (2002) provides enough evidence to suggest that dowry demand never existed until recent times, and that there were hardly any exorbitant dowries being given causing economic problems for families in pre-British India. So what happened to us that we are now at this juncture where women are being burned alive because of this custom of dowry? We must begin to understand what is inherently wrong and cultural oxymoron-ish about the notion of dowry demand which is responsible for what have come to be known as dowry deaths. In an interview given to India Abroad on March 28, 2003, Oldenburg said: Dowryhas today become a convenient peg on which to hang all explanations about discrimination against women. But in its origins dowry was one of the few indigenous, women-centered institutions in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society. Historically, it was an index of the appreciation bestowed upon a daughter in her natal village, and not a groom's prerogative to make demands on the girl's family. The dowryinfanticide blight was used to justify the annexation of India. Colonialism, it was claimed was a civilizing mission. There is now compelling evidence of the impact of British land title and revenue policies on masculinization of Indian culture. Before colonial rule, land was not a commodity, not owned by anyone, so women enjoyed the same rights as men. As women moved after marrying (village exogamy was practiced), they took their entitlements to other villages. Under colonial rule they did not get titles to the land. Oldenburg (2002) analyzes documented records to show how the whole notion of a woman, with or without dowry, suddenly became of a person without property, without home, in fact, without rights. The social expectation that customs related to women would remain unchanged even as mens rights in property were transformed is nave (p. 8). It is obvious that our post-colonial understandings of womanhood, dowry, marriage, womans property rights, etc. are shaped by these colonial experiences. Whether dowry was traditionally meant as a way for daughters to get their fair share in parental property, whether the custom varied from jati to jati, whether there was traditionally an expectation involved with dowry - these questions need to thoroughly understood by those concerned about crimes related to dowry abuse. [W]e will not be in a position to address the problem of dowry unless the state begins to take a wholly different view of it (Oldenburg in an interview given to Times of India, January 31, 2003). One could argue, as several participants in our discussion strongly and rightfully did, that regardless of the historical basis for certain traditions it is not wrong to examine it in the context of present circumstances, options, opportunities and see if there is a better


alternative. The question would then be, what would the alternative look like No dowry or no dowry demand? How will we go about bringing in this alternative? We already have a no dowry demand law. Do we also need a no dowry law? How do we enforce that? How will we then go about changing the other colonial remnant - family inheritance law, which is closely connected with dowry? How do such changes occur in a society? And how do we make sure that these changes are enduring and effective? As part of her fieldwork, Oldenburg also analyzed several dowry abuse and domestic violence cases that she came across during her volunteer work at womens organizations in India. She points out the inadequacy of the current anti-dowry legislation in India and notes that the law actually shapes the cases and their reporting in the media. She concludes that the link of dowry demands to marital violence becomes the pivotal factor in these cases (2002, p. 219) because it is more difficult to prove other kinds of harassment, lies, cruelties and violence in a court of law. Dowry demands, a cultural oxymoron, are unscrupulous ploys that bear no resemblance to the historical and traditional meanings of dowry, but they are not perceived, alas, as simple blackmail, extortion, or insurance fraud crimes common to all societies, to which they are akin. Domestic violence is not recognized as a separate offence under the law, but it is given cognizance only if linked to dowry harassment. The cultural flavor of crime and violence is preserved in the Indian setting by the medias insistence on calling extortion dowry demands and murder dowry deaths.(p. 219) The process of social change should begin with questioning our own eagerness to blame society and tradition for what are individual crimes of extortion and fraud. It should include looking at why the current Dowry Prohibition Act hasnt been very effective in preventing violence against women. Oldenburg reminds us that the dowry deaths have far more than dowry as their cause, and the preventive legal steps taken against the practice of dowry will not end dowry murders or suicides, nor will a ban on sexselective tests equalize the chances of survival for girls and boys. A whole new activist and legislative initiative for the empowerment of women through education, economic opportunities, and equal inheritance rights to natal property are urgently needed (2002, p. 225). Detailed discussion of these ideas demands a separate paper (or perhaps several). But let me end this one with the following thought from Oldenburg (2002, p. 8): Dowry needs dynamic reformulation, defined neither as the timeless stridhan or womens wealth, as described in the third-century Dharmashastra, nor as the lethal custom that allegedly provokes the murders of several thousand young women annually. Coda As I close this paper, I read the tragic story about a dowry-death in Virginia, USA. This case of Indian software engineer accused of butchering his wife over dowry may soon catch the attention of analysts looking for cultural reasons for such gruesome violence


against a woman. Making it a cultural crime will sadly only help justify violence against Indian women. As Narayan (1997) notes with irritation the tendency of many discussions of dowry-murders, both by Westerners and Indians, to be sprinkled with religio-cultural explanations even when they go on to also provide the sorts of social and economic explanations. There seems to be a fairly widespread tendency in discussions of Third-World issues to engage in what I increasingly think of as a schizophrenic analysis, where religious and mythological explanations must be woven in willy-nilly, even if they do no real explanatory work (p. 111). The academic exercise of doing the numerical comparisons of dowry deaths in India and domestic violence murders in the USA after a point remains only that an academic exercise. In real-life, even a single life lost in such horrible crime is a cause for pain and concern. The analysis presented in this paper does not gloss over the seriousness of the issue of dowry demands and dowry deaths, at the same time it is certainly not a schizophrenic analysis. By situating some of IndDiaspora dialogue on dowry in recent scholarly analysis, I believe this paper serves as a call for introspection and debate among those concerned about this distorted social practice that has resulted in lethal crimes against thousands of young Indian women. References Anderson, S. (2003). Why dowry payments declined with modernization in Europe but are rising in India. Journal of Political Economy, 111 (2), 269-310. bell hooks (1992). The Oppositional Gaze: Black female spectators. Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press. Edlund, L. (2001) Dear son - Expensive daughter: Do scarce women pay to marry? Available at http://www.columbia.edu/~le93/djun11.pdf Narayan, U. (1997). Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism. New York: Routledge. Oldenburg V. T. (2002). Dowry murder: The Imperial origins of a cultural crime. New York: Oxford University Press. Oldenburg, V. T. (2003). Interview, Times of India, January 31, 2003. Oldenburg, V. T. (2003). Interview, India Abroad on March 28, 2003.