Posted by Shivani Gual
While I was growing up in a tier two city of UP, every conversation surrounding marriages inevitably involved dowry. How much are they asking? How much are they giving? Statements like “Thoda bahot toh karna hi padta hai” would be unmissable in these conversations. So much so that it is even possible for many of us to forget that dowry was made illegal in India, criminalised by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. The Act was brought about to penalise and dismantle the culture of giving and taking dowry in India. It defined dowry as any property or valuable security which is given by one party to another party involved in the marriage.
Marriage is an essential characteristic of the Indian society. This solid foundation is very often laid over the embarrassing assemblage of payments and an arrangement of transactions. From an anthropological point of view, the marriage payments are ancient and have existed in almost all the societies which indulged in one or the other form of universal act of marriage. Marriage payments in India continue to be as common as salt in our food, a culture that has been extremely resistant to change over the decades.
Marriage payments, technically, are the monetary exchanges made between the families of the bride and groom. They can be classified as dowry (given by the bride’s side to the groom’s family) and bride price (given by the groom’s side to the bride’s family). Bride price, also known as bridewealth, is a token given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family in the form of money, gifts, valuables, etc., in order to ‘seal the deal’ and cement the relations between the two families through a marriage union.
Several African communities have the payment of bride price as an important tradition in marriage, without which the husband cannot assume full rights over his wife. China is another example where the practice of bride price is rampant and the cost of such marriages has been rising with time. In India, many tribes and rural communities continue to practice bridewealth culture till date.
Indian tribal, as well as non-tribal communities, carry out the payment of bride price for several reasons, each community having its own. Bride price holds significant value for the communities that observe it as a mechanism that keeps marriages together and fraternity intact among the relatives. North-eastern tribes such as Ho, Zeliang, Regma Naga, etc. consider the payment of bride price as a crucial element of marriage.
In several societies, the culture of dowry and bride price exists simultaneously. The value of this exchange is variable and depends upon factors such as the status of the families, resourcefulness of the groom, marital status of the bride (for instance, if she has been married earlier, and has children from that marriage, in which case, the bride price would be lesser), etc. In many cases, the bride price is so high that many of the young men and women remain unmarried. Some communities such as Gonds, deal with high bride prices by choosing the tradition of bride service where the groom stays at the bride’s house and offers his service to the household.
Murdock, a renowned American anthropologist, studied over 1100 pre-industrial societies of which around two-third practised bride price. He observed that dowry is common in an economically complex, socially stratified society (for example India, which is aggressively stratified by the caste system), whereas bride-price assumes importance in societies which are relatively homogenous and actively engage women in labour and other agricultural activities (such as African and Indian tribal communities). In the past, bride price was considered as a payment made by the husband as an appreciation and recognition of women’s contribution to married life. With time, however, this argument lost its strength.
Some would argue that the culture of bride price has protected women of the said communities from social evils like harassment, violence, and prostitution, but this is far from the truth. In reality, exclusive rights are assumed over the bride and her productivity in exchange for the price paid by the husband for his bride. This payment not only takes away the control of the woman over her body, sexually as well as for labour, but also denies her the option of returning to her natal home without the repayment of the bride price. This psychological, social, and cultural dishonour brought upon women is beyond outrageous.
In some villages in the districts of east Uttar Pradesh, which openly make payments for brides, the status of women has significantly deteriorated. The allegedly purchased women are the primary breadwinners in these communities and men are mostly unemployed. The disreputable employment of women is one of the major reasons why such communities remain to be extremely downtrodden and socially backward even in today’s time. Many of these women are married at a very young age (often less than 18 years) and their family have no motivation or interest in women’s education.
This unsettling culture not only destroys the fundamental freedom and dignity of women but also refuses the development and growth of the entire family and community on the whole. In most of these societies, children are highly valued for their economic contributions and therefore, the woman is expected to have as many children as possible. The undesirable outcomes, hence, are early pregnancies, malnourished children, high infant mortality rate, illiteracy, unhygienic lifestyle, improper childhood, poverty, and poor mental wellbeing. Consequently, the successive generation turns out to be less sensitive and unaware of everything that is wrong with their culture.
Despite laws being in place for more than six decades now, there has hardly been any change in the traditions of marriage payments. It is almost as if the law does not exist at all. Even though the communities that practise bride-price are relatively negligible as compared to the ones that take dowry, the former affects the society at a comparable intensity. India being one of the most unsafe places for women, it becomes a matter of urgency for the nation to pull apart any such systems which contribute to the unfortunate scenario.
Even the tradition of dowry, which began for the benefit of women, has changed its nature in the due course of time. Earlier, it proved beneficial for the women in providing them with the assurance of better care in the husband’s house. It also gave them the authority to use the received wealth as their own. The custom became more malicious with time as wealth exchanged hands through generations. There are cases of physical, emotional, and mental harassment, violence and even deaths related to marriage payments, and ironically they are not limited to any geography or class in India.
Some of the measures that could be taken to improve the situation and abolish the obnoxious institution of marriage payments are: deployment of more Dowry Prohibition officers by the state governments (provided by the DPA 1961), ensuring efficient compliance of the law by people, fast-tracking the trials of the accused in cases of harassment related to dowry/bride price, providing impoverished rural women access to resources for their independence and empowerment, putting more pressure on education and skill development, etc. to start with.
These are only a few drops in a bucket full of responsibilities that the government has towards the country’s women to build an equitable and egalitarian nation for the future generations.
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