Vismaya Nair is now a household name in urban India. The 24-year-old – a victim of domestic violence and dowry harassment – was found dead in her husband's house in Kerala's Kollam district on 21 June.
But soon, her story will be forgotten, and she, too, will become just another data point in the endless dowry deaths statistics of India.
Like 24-year-old Ayesha Banu from Ahmedabad, who ended her life by jumping into the Sabarmati in March, stating that she was repeatedly harassed for dowry by her husband. Or 25-year-old Rashika Agarwal from Kolkata, who jumped to death from her husband's house in February, after his family 'blamed' her for Rs 7 crore as dowry.
A Vismaya Nair or an Ayesha Banu or a Rashika Agarwal become victims of dowry deaths roughly every hour in India, as per the National Crime Records Bureau 2019 data. They become a victim of cruelty by their husband or in-laws every four minutes, over the same reason.
Neither legislation (the Dowry Prohibition Act passed in 1961), nor education (Kerala being the most literate state in India) could stop the practice of women being treated as a commodity, wrapped a ribbon around, and 'paid' for the groom's family to 'take her in.'
A careful study of over 40,000 marriages, across 17 states, and between 1961 and 2008 pointed that dowry was paid in 95 percent of marriages that took place during this period – indicating that pre-colonial times or 21st Century, nothing has changed when it came to dowry.
How States, Religions & Caste Fare
The two-part study published on the World Bank site on 30 June, used the Delhi-based think-tank National Council of Applied Economic Research’s 2006 Rural Economic and Demographic Survey, which covered 17 major states that have about 96 percent of the country’s population.
It noted on an average, a groom’s family spends about Rs 5,000 on gifts to the bride’s family, while the gifts from the bride’s family cost seven times more – about Rs 32,000. This implies an average real net dowry of Rs 27,000, the study pointed.
Kerala, which performs well on social indicators, is the worst offender when it comes to dowry deaths, closely followed by Haryana, Punjab, and Gujarat – with the average dowry amount increasing in the last four decades. But the study also shows that in states like in the states of Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, the average dowry decreased over the years.
It revealed that payment of dowries by Christians and Sikhs has seen a sharp rise over the years, which has also led to higher average dowries – when compared to Hindus and Muslims. It also noted that upper caste marriages have highest dowries, followed by other backward classes, scheduled castes, and scheduled tribes.
Pre-Colonial Times to 21 Century – Nothing Has Changed
Historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg, in her book Dowry Murder, looks at how the practice began.
“In precolonial India, dowry was not a “problem” but a support for women: a mark of their social status and a safety net."Veena Talwar Oldenburg
In British India, when right to own land became a legal, it was bestowed only upon the male child – the 'dominant legal subject.' In a country that was predominantly dependent on agriculture, having a son thus became more 'preferable,' it became a sign of 'prosperity' and was seen as a 'key to survival.'
Oldenburg explains that this made parents of the bride see the potential grooms with increased competitiveness.
To put it simply, the thought was that the groom would choose a bride who would help him best to 'progress.'
“The idea that a groom’s family could make demands slowly infiltrated other traditional gift-giving occasions reserved by parents for their married daughters and their children," Oldenburg wrote.
Over the years, this has taken a turn for the worse over the years – with demands ranging from cars to sovereigns of gold, from apartments to money to kickstart a business – and is now one of the primary reasons associated with domestic violence and suicide of brides.
Dowry Not a 'Thing of the Past'
India, as a young republic in 1961, declared dowry a crime. A slew of amendments over the years aimed to outlaw the practice – but as the above data shows, it is well stitched into India's fabric.
Soon after the passing of anti-dowry law, the practice found place next to Sati – in which a wife 'sacrificed' herself after her husband's demise. Even as the the school texts books read 'Dowry is a social evil,' it remained just there, inside the pages and as a written text.
The society, on the other hand, had an unspoken agreement – 'better dowry, better groom,' and 'more the dowry, better the respect.'
Even as women became more educated, more financially independent from the 1980s, the 'understanding' remained – normalising the practice.
The outright demand took a classier and coated form of 'gifts' – but the price tag on the bride very much remains to date.
The law, too, says nothing about 'voluntary gifts' when no 'demand' is made from the groom's side – resulting in a whole new manner of communicating their 'expectations.'
'You can do whatever you want for your daughter,' the groom's family says, casually pushing the responsibility on the bride's family, gaslighting and steering clear of any illegality that would haunt them.
The 'expectation' of the groom's family assumes the position of 'duty' for the bride's. In most cases, the woman's family does not see dowry as a barbaric practice, but as a matter of pride. And this becomes widely accepted and even appreciated.
We cannot fault dowry when it leads to domestic violence and deaths but turn a blind eye when it causes no such tragic repercussions. We cannot wash our hands off and pretend that the parents are 'investing' in their daughters with 'promises' and 'gifts.' We need to break the notion of dowry being a 'duty.'
'What will society think?' cannot be a lame excuse we hide under and normalise buying a car, an apartment, or 'anything that will make the groom happy.'
Until we call dowry for what it is – a barbaric practice, a real social evil – there will be more Vismaya Nairs.
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