Domestic Violence, Dowry: Does Kerala Merit Its 'Progressive' Tag?
Recent dowry deaths in Kerala have revealed how deep-rooted evil practices of patriarchy are in its social fabric.
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There has been an outrage in Kerala after the news of Vismaya V Nair’s death and a series of other dowry-related deaths were reported in the state. However, this is not an ‘evil’ that has emerged today, but is among many other patriarchal practices that have been considered acceptable for long.
In 1989, Samantha (name changed) was 24 when she got married and being the fifth child among seven of her siblings, her parents were more than happy when she got a marriage proposal from a widower – because he did not ask for dowry. All he wanted was a mother for his daughter and a wife for company, after his first wife died in an accident. Samantha’s husband seemed to be the most chivalrous gentleman this family had ever come across and they could not help but feel extremely lucky to send their daughter to his house.
“At first everything seemed fine. We even had two sons together. But soon I think my husband got bored of me and started having extramarital affairs. When I would confront him about it, he would abuse me verbally and physically. And the abuse became a part of our routine at home. It became hard to convince anyone about what I was going through. To make it more difficult he even became a pastor and special counsellor for marriage in our church.”Samantha
On being asked why she never thought of divorce as an option, she says, “I am 56 now, it is too late to get a divorce, my children and I depend on him financially. This broken marriage has affected my children though, they have grown up seeing me get beaten up by my husband and have resorted to drugs, and I know I have given them a broken childhood. I do regret not trying for a divorce. But that has never really been an option for me. I don’t think my family would accept me.”
In a more recent case, Geetha (name changed), who was 22 when she got married, said her husband turned out to be abusive after marriage. “He was dealing with some psychological issues, which I was not aware of. After I got to know about it, they did not let me get in touch with my family. He would abuse me frequently and broke my phone also. I stayed in their flat without being in touch with anyone for a very long time. I finally figured out a way to reach out to my family and finally managed to escape.”
Apart from the above anecdotes, the recent deaths in dowry-related cases in Kerala reveal unseen cracks in society, that have grown deeper over the years, with their roots in patriarchy. What is practised in Kerala is not very different from the orthodox practices that are followed in other parts of the country. There is a vast divide that has come about in what is perceived to be a progressive society and what is practised back at home.
As Rekha Raj, an activist and writer, puts it, “Domestic violence is an everyday reality of Kerala. It has been considered acceptable – a man to abuse his wife. Ironically, you could be a progressive person in public, but you could be religious and patriarchal in domestic spaces. There is a deep-rooted hypocrisy.”
With Kerala having the highest female literacy and sex ratio, there is a utopian idea of the state having an ideal society.
“They are clever enough to hide these evil practices. Women are also a part of this problem, many of them say it is mutually agreed and support dowry.”Rekha Raj, Social activist and writer
Family Structure Maintains a ‘Patriarchal Frame’
Even though the literacy rate is high in the state, the family structure is as patriarchal as other states in India. There is a divide in the kind of progress the state has seen on a societal level and at an individual level that is practised within the homes.
Explaining this divide further, Sunil P Elayidam, a writer, says “The modernisation that happened here was very different. Even though we are in 2020, the family system belongs to the 1930s or 40s. In Kerala, progressive ideas are not allowed to enter the domain of the family – it is kept outside. No matter how progressive the family members might be, orthodox practices, which include religious practices, caste practices, and patriarchal practices, continue to be followed. The family structure has maintained a patriarchal frame.”
“There should be a movement to democratise the structure of the family. The modernisation happened here at the structural level, not in the familial value level. Kerala has been glorified as a highly modern society etc. But the job involvement of the educated female group is somewhat very low. Somewhere below 15 percent. Why is this, is a fundamental question we must engage with.”Sunil P Elayidam, Writer
‘Definition of Dowry Needs to Be Redefined’
Even though the Dowry Prohibition Act was put into effect in 1961 the practice is still followed under the garb of ‘will’ and ‘gifts’ in Kerala. Gifts, ornaments, cash, and cars are given as dowry and accepted as ‘gifts’ during weddings.
Advocate Sapna Parameswarath, who is the founder of Punarjani Lady Lawyers Initiative in Kozhikode, says, “The definition of the dowry law is inadequate and should be redefined. Since these are not documented, it gets difficult for the girls to reclaim these ‘gifts’, while fighting their case legally,” she adds.
“There was a girl named Safaria from Nadapuram who was found dead due to dowry harassment, though her father tried fighting the case he finally settled the matter. Due to various factors – poverty one side, legal expenses, and pressure from the accused family. He gave up at last. This case still haunts me,” she recollects.
Giving her suggestions on how the problem can be tackled, she says, “While registering marriage, it should be accompanied by a declaration form to be signed by the married people, which details all properties owned and possessed by the girl. So, it gets documented, and will be helpful for legal proceedings. Also, there must be a fixed ceiling for marriage expenses. This must be introduced in the definition of dowry in the act. Anything above the ceiling must be considered as dowry, so a third person can inform.”
Reacting to the news of Vismaya Nair’s death, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said, “Torture and death in the name of dowry has been happening in various parts of the country. But to become a place like that does not befit the cultural enlightenment that the state has acquired. This is totally regrettable, not befitting to our land.”
The recent incidents, however, reveal that evil practices of patriarchy like domestic violence and dowry harassment are not new but deep-rooted in the social fabric of Kerala society. This raises questions of how we, as society, measure ‘progress’ and being ‘progressive’. Is Kerala truly ‘culturally enlightened’ as a society?
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