The Acceptable Abuse: Women and Dowries in India

By:  A.B. Thomas

As India quickly emerges into a world power, an issue has arisen that affects the caste system from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich: the material value of dowries. The tradition of dowries is strong in India, so much so that instead of being pushed aside as Western materialistic and monetary expectations turn the cultural expectations from the spiritual to the secular, the prices of dowries have soared as a result of  the new benchmarks for quality of life modern Western society has set. The largest sector in India to have felt the brunt of this increase are not the castes; whether it be the poorest to the richest; but the feminine gender contained in each of those castes.

Estimates place the ratio of  women at eight for every 10 men in India. In the mainstream Indian culture, a married man is considered  an elevation in the man’s status within his community. The increasing ratio of men to women in India’s populous has been discussed as a masculine problem although almost no attention has been focused on the major area that has caused this imbalance of genders in the Indian culture: dowries. The payment of monies and/or land, animals, furniture as well as other assets of the bride’s family, the dowry, called ‘Dahej’, along with the bride, called Kanyadaan, is still considered an important aspect of the majority of Indian marriages, even  though the practice of dahej was legally prohibited in 1961 by the Indian government. As India’s wealth and status in the world climbs, so does the costs to the bride’s family as to what is acceptable for a dahej.  The families feel  ‘burdened’ by having daughters to disconsolateness. It takes marrying off only one daughter to destroy the average Indian family’s savings.  Having two, three or more daughters guarantees that family’s economic, emotional, social and psychological implosion.

The cost of the dahej does not end for some women once the marriage has begun. If the amount of the dahej is considered insufficient by the bridegroom’s family, or if the bride’s family is remiss on payment of the dahej, women are made to suffer for the ‘sins’ of their families. The actions taken towards those women can be anywhere from  harassment or abuse; to having kerosene  poured on the woman then set alight, called ‘bride burning’, in its severest form of showing dissatisfaction. While accurate records are not kept by the Indian government on the number of ‘bride burning’ incidences,  5,377 were reported as such in 1993.  It is estimated that this is approximately a mere five percent of the incidences that have actually occurred are called murder, with the majority of  burnt brides classified as accidents or suicides by the family. According to one social agency,  in Delhi a woman is burned to death almost every twelve hours. Though the price some married women pay to have the honoured title of ‘wife’ would appear high, the cost to women yet to marry is as treacherous.

The struggle for women in India begins before they are born; families do not look at girls as blessings to their numbers. Many families will celebrate the birth of a son but will mourn for the birth of a baby girl as the family sees not what a baby girl will bring to the lives of that family, but the cost that baby will bring to the family in the future. In North America or Europe, when a little girl goes missing,  it is worthy of being national news no matter how small of a town she comes from; in India it is estimated that almost 1,000,000 girls and women have disappeared yet little is said about this statistic. Orphanages in India are stocked with a large number of girls who have been abandoned by their families on the orphanage’s door steps or simply left at the side of a road with the knowledge that they were not tossed aside because of who they are but for what their future will cost their families.

With the universality of foetal technology access such as ultrasounds, an entire new lucrative career has opened up in India. The poorest of pregnant women and their families will give all that they can in order to have these tests made in order to determine the sex of the child  the woman is carrying. Although it is illegal for a doctor to tell the woman what the sex of the baby is in India, the nurses, whether out of true concern for the welfare of the women or for the price of a bribe, often will tell the woman the sex of the baby,  whether they actually know the sex or not. This has led to a secondary lucrative business in India; abortion clinics. There are no official statistics for the reasons for the around 6.7 million abortions performed in India a year, but with the gender bias against women as strong as it is, one can extrapolate that a fair percentage of those operations  are not because of genetic defects or medical issues with the women who have them performed.

There are two questions that come to mind when looks at the custom of dahej. At what point will the men of India decide that the percentage of available women to marry is far enough below the average to create a handicap to marriage, and subsequently a  loss of respect for their brothers and sons? What will the condition of the female gender be when India has reached its desired entry into the Western World’s definition of ‘developed’? Will the practice of dahej still exist as openly as it does currently?

To judge India by North American and European standards on the treatment of women is hypocritical in both the widest and narrowest of thought; the two societies both have their fair share of dirty secrets when it comes to the equality of women. What occurs in India happens on the two continents as well, although it is far less openly accepted or as final as the ‘bride burning’.  One only needs to look at the occupancy rates in women’s shelters, at  court records and internet snuff sites. The difference between Europe and North America and India is on the will of the criminal justice system to prosecute those who get caught. Perhaps the real question will not be whether India’s government will look at the dahej as something more serious than they are treating it now but whether India is ready to accept putting these actions farther into the shadows to satisfy the palettes of good international etiquette.

9 Comments on “The Acceptable Abuse: Women and Dowries in India”

  1. Good points, you are correct in your assesment that largely we don’t treat women that much better here, as attested by women’s shelters, numbers of battered women and the ever more visiable kept woman who is willing to be a plaything on call for a man.
    At what point are we as a species going to reassess what it means to be bound to someone and when and if contracts even need to happen?
    Also how will we redifine what a family is so that everyone can feel stable, loved and well cared for?

  2. Because of the wonderful forward invention of wire and silicon to hold the words of a writer over the murder of trees that I have for so many years remained an active participant in, there were a few issues that were lost when said wire and silicon decided to take a vacation upon me after writing this article. The first issue that was debated was the age of some of the statistics involved in my article; which is perfectly understandable. There was a concern that because of the events happening in India such as the border wars, the increased tension with Pakistan and more attention being paid to the international scrutiny of a couple of sites where massive foetal remains had been found that the treatment of women had become healthier in the mainstream of Indian society. The newest numbers that I could get a hold of from India’s National Crime Bureau were for the year of 2007. What their numbers said was that crimes against women had increased 12.5% over the year 2006. Specific number variances in what I was looking at in relation to women were as follows:

    Dowry deaths – in 2006 were reported at 7,618 and in 2007 8,093, an increase of 6.2%

    Torture (cruelty by husband and relatives)– in 2006 were reported at 63,128 and in the year 2007 7.930, an increase of 20.2%

    Dowry prohibition act – in 2006 were reported at 4,504 and in the year 2007 5,623, an increase of 24.8%

    From these particular numbers, while they may seem dismal, there is one thing that could be seen as a positive, they were reported and denoted for statistical purposes. This would indicate that the Indian Judicial system is beginning to change their view on the priority of women’s issues within the country. I do apologize still for the three year differential in statistics, but when is relying on government statistics…

    A second issue that was brought to my attention when I first presented this article for publication was that there seemed to be ‘something’ missing from where the married women’s position was. In the couple of months since I have talked to couples that have immigrated to Canada, talked with some men and women that still reside in India, joined an Indian forum and had input from staff. What I was roughly to correlate from all this was that the primary ‘playing field’ for these actions against women were based on the caste system to a certain extent and certain religious affiliations over others. Socio-economic and educational considerations play a minor role in how women are looked at in India; in fact where you would expect lower incomes to play a greater role because of the burden of a very limited income, it would appear that the middle and higher classes are where there is more economically at stake the importance of male offspring over female offspring occur. I would softly and hesitantly opine that these crimes are situational in nature, or very well hidden from outsiders, such as the case of Indian peoples that have immigrated to places such as Canada. In an adopted homeland there is less dependence on being accepted because of “that’s the way things are” so while the feminine voice is still quite soft, it does have a deeper and confident tone than those still in living in India. The other thing that I have noticed is that the transplanted male population also has become more likely to speak out against the restrictive life sentences of women in their home country.

    It may sound boorish, perhaps monstrous, but my views on the men of India have softened somewhat as well. When I first wrote the article, it was rage that aimed at the men. In listening and observing what I have seen is that what I took for contempt was of a generalized nature; when a singular wife was isolated from the masses, there was a subtleness of respect and love for that woman. I see it as a mob mentality, if you do not stand with the crowd; you end up a bloodied pulp underneath the trodding soles of those around you. By no means do I pity but neither do I scorn, I simply strive to analyze what kind of man I would be in that situation. As I said, we in the west have learned to hide our transgressions far better but I have to wonder if our over concern with the politically correct mask of equality did not exist, would we be living in a society where the women were treated any different than they are treated in India?

  3. Good points all, I now have even more to mull over, thanks for adding the more recent numbers and I share your opinion that this at least means numbers are being kept. I may be back let’s see what others have to say.

  4. Tony,i find the situation appalling, no doubt, but abuse is always very sad, very real and very appalling. Stripping all the emotional venue, this is what i see happening in India if the mass genocide against women continues. Either they will have to import marriages from the more woman dominated areas of China and Iraq, or they will have to adapt to a more matriarchal culture. Any time the ratio of men to women becomes equal or greater, women become more valued. Enslaving them for their attentions becomes ineffective, because the woman’s attention wanders off to better options. In some areas where men have outnumbered men for at least a couple of generations, bride trafficking often appears, although this course is also risky to the investing male. It doesn’t take long for the mail order bride to realize the status of women in the society.

    Although this might sound alarming to men who prefer the visions of numerous women to choose from, consider this factor. In areas where men out number the women, the population is very slow growing. There are two factors involved. The most obvious; while men can spread themselves around fathering babies right and left, women, who as far as i know, have not been able to breed out puppies with multiple fathers, must resign themselves to one breeder at a time. This leads to the second factor. Because she has a larger field to choose from, she can be more selective about who fathers her children and how many she wishes to have. Her biological clock doesn’t stress as an adequate partnership isn’t a main anxiety. In a purely cold and analytical eye, this suicidal drive against women might be nature’s way of providing population controls within a demographic area that hasn’t exerted any voluntary measures. If they continue tipping the scale, it will radically change the future value of women in India’s society in a manner currently impossible to foresee.

  5. It is interesting to me that you noted that the as ratio between the genders becomes more noticable in India’s society that there will be changes that one cannot foresee as it would seem that in at least one small way that is beginning already. One of the things that never crossed my mind when I was researching then talking to people about India was the state of human waste, a pretty shitty thing for me not to ponder, and in my western ignorance did not realize that many in India do not having plumbing fixtures. As I was reading through a slew of articles from the National Forum of India I was astongished to find that some women are demanding that their groom either have or get an indoor toilet before they will agree to marry them.

  6. Excellent article, shedding much needed light on such a despicable phenomenon.

    Makes you wonder how far you have to wind the rubber band before it breaks – or backfires in your direction.

  7. I’ve come to realize that in society even after the rubberband breaks and lacerates a cornea, there is always going to be someone else who sees what has happened and tries it for themselves under the belief that the first person, rolling on the ground as blood spews through their fingers, is a moron and obviously did something wrong. Even as Indian women are beginning to organize to have their voices heard, they still remain a commodity. I read a report recently that last September farmers in the Upper Pradesh (sorry if I spelt it wrong) region were selling the wives (signing over their marriage contracts) to other men in order to pay of debts as their crops failed. I have not yet seen the final report on the investigation by the National Committee for Women on the matter but if the reports hold the allegations to be true one has to wonder on how the views of the Indian Justice department are going to reflect on the legality of what amounts to human trafficking.

  8. I am glad that I’m not one of the Indian woman, whose going through the horrors of dehej, I don’t understand, why at this age and time people still treat another human being worse than animal, what’s wrong with the Indian culture? Women are equal as men,or at least treat her like human. The Indian’s movies, there always love story, how men so sincere and love their women, then it all fake about the love that some Indian men claimed to be romantic and great lover…I am very disappointed, because I was admired this Indian man that I spoke with and like him very much, I guess I have to say NO to a relationship. I hope the Indian government look into this dehej more seriously.I pray that God would always bless and protect those women that suffer from this stupid dehej…

  9. Battered/ abused women is not something that’s supported in North American or European societies whereas wife burning is culturally supported in certain parts of India. That is the difference between the two.

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