Indian Wives: Victims in Their Own Homes

The extent that the contemporary dowry system is an institution unto itself or a reflection of overall gender disparities is a long-standing question. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Written by Simone Tandon

Neha, a 29-year-old mother of two children, was brutally burned in India. Her in-laws believed she deserved to be set on fire for not satisfying their demand for more dowry. Neha’s case was reported; many aren’t.

The term dowry refers to cash, goods or assets (e.g. property, jewelry, shares, etc.), which a bride’s family pays the groom’s family to secure her “well-being” in a marriage. It’s the price for a good match in the marriage market. While a dowry once was essentially a separate savings fund for the bride, today it is considered compensation for the groom. Since a wife is typically financially dependent on her husband after marriage, she’s considered an economic burden on his family.

With patriarchy and domestic violence so deeply embedded in Indian society, neither the government nor the community have done enough to address the murder and abuse of women, They’ve also largely failed to confront the root causes of these tragedies.

According to World Socialist, beatings — and in some cases murders — of women over dowries are both common and commonly ignored. The violence is sometimes “tacitly condoned in official circles – by the police, the courts, politicians, and media.” Legislation related to dowry, such as the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, may be on the books. But, within a system rife with corruption, the law hasn’t been able to effec- tively deal with the issue.

The most serious cases of dowry violence include bride burning, murder, harassment and abuse of Indian wives. In 2011 alone, 8000 dowry harassment deaths were reported. A study in the Journal of Bisocial Science asked women about the “most severe form of gender disparities in marriage”, and 84.1 percent of the respondents said “dowry demands”.

Traditional Indian culture believes that husbands are entitled to greater power than their wives. Inheritance laws, for example, prohibit the transfer of assets and material property to women. The extent that the contemporary dowry system is an institution unto itself or a reflection of overall gender disparities is a long-standing question. However, recent political discourse in India has increasingly linked dowry to larger social issues such as violence against women, female feticide, and sex-selective abortion.

Arranged marriages are the norm in India and usually hinge on the amount of dowry a bride’s family is willing to offer. Indian wives often find themselves continually coerced into succumbing to the demands of their in-laws. This leads to what’s known as “dowry deaths” (shown in the graph below). Dowry deaths are women who are killed or driven to suicide by their husband or husband’s family when they are unable to meet the ongoing demands.

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The wife’s own family also frequently contributes to the prevalence of this violence. Many cases go unreported for fear of bringing shame. Cultural notions of upholding the family honor also means that people raise eyebrows when a married woman returns to her parent’s home. Without their families as support systems, it proves difficult for wives to escape their abusers.

Now, even with the technological addition of matrimonial websites, marriage brokers and service providers are still perpetuating the tradition of dowry. On March 23 this year, the Indian high court cited several websites for illegally advertising dowry demands. As a result, the world’s largest matrimonial service has taken several initiatives to raise awareness against dowry.

The practice of dowry is indeed a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, there is increasing awareness of its inherent dangers. Should the dowry system one day be eliminated, that also could prompt sweeping changes elsewhere within India’s patriarchal society.

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