Dowry: The Sociocultural Face of Exploitation in the Twenty-First Century

Author- Janvi Vishnani

Introduction

Due to the patriarchal setup women are considered as a weaker section. For ages, women have suffered a lot of oppression at every walk of life, even in the modern time the condition of women is the same. They face discrimination from birth to the last breathe they take. Even in the modern era, we can see the crime against women rape, molestation, etc. Apart from this one of the evil practices against women is the existence of the “dowry system”.

The dowry system has long been a threat to our culture. The girl’s parents are compelled to prepare an enormous wedding gift, which includes jewelry, expensive goods, and other items. The recent case Ayesha Banu where a woman attempted suicide after facing harassment by her husband. This way the menace of dowry becomes very gruesome and often leads to domestic violence and physical assault on the girl.

Evolution of Dowry system

When it comes to women’s rights, India has always been depicted as an extremely regressive society. We are portrayed as a society where women struggle because of ancient dogma that contributes to dowry and female foeticide. If we look at our history women’s in ancient times given such high respect and status. The goddess is the most powerful deity in Hinduism; Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, and Laxmi is the goddess of wealth. So why is it that everybody holds Indian tradition responsible for the presence of such a tradition?

Dowry was never an Indian tradition, it was brought by the Britishers, dowry was common practice there. In 3000 BC when Megasthenes and Arrian who visited India around stated that there was a total absence of dowry in India. There was a similar practice prevalent in India known as “Streedhan”.

“Streedhan” is the property, gift, etc. given to the daughter by her parents as she is leaving the home and is about to start her new life. This Streedhan exclusively belonged to the wife and the husband and his family had no right over the property or gift. The idea behind this was to make the daughter independent and provide her with a sense of financial security, if there is any misfortune happening she can survive with help of that property or gift. This way women had a very secure life after marriage and had a high status in society.

But as Britishers arrive they passed such laws where males could inherit the property and also introduced the practice of coverture where the husband and wife began to be treated as one entity. This practiced failed to achieve what it was expected to achieve. Instead of giving equal rights to both, the rights of women were absorbed by the men and all her property and wealth was his. This also had a serious effect on dowry as it turned from a wedding gift by parents to the girl at the wedding to the gift from the bride’s parents to the husband. This coverture system spread all over the world to all the colonies of the British Empire including India. The wealth which was given to provide financial independence to the bride had now become a compulsion, adding to the burden on the family of the bride.

Dowry in modern India

Dowry has become a very terrible problem in the world today. Although the world has developed in terms of technology and space exploration, we have reached mars but the conservative ideals and tradition are still prevalent as they were in past. Various factors contribute to the perpetuation of the dowry system.

The first factor is that the people in the society have made dowry a status symbol, the higher the amount of dowry you give the more reputation you have in the society. During this process, if the daughter’s parents refuse some of the demands of the groom’s family they threaten them to cancel the marriage. In the Indian culture, we believe it to be detrimental to the reputation of the bride and her family because of this reason they had to fulfill the demands. This gives power to the groom’s family to demand an exorbitant amount of dowry.

According to the 2019 report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in every one hour a woman becomes the victim of dowry death in our country. Every four minutes a woman becomes a victim of cruelty by her husband and on average, every year around 7500 women suffer from dowry death. These figures might be horrifying but it is just the tip of the iceberg 99% of the cases remain unreported just because of the social factor of what people will think of us.

That’s why people believe that son is an asset and a daughter is a liability. Due to this dowry pressure, many girls put to death in their mother womb, and if a girl child is born she has given fewer opportunities in term of education and wealth in her family just because she is going to her in-law’s house and that’s why she is often termed as “paraya dhan”. In her in-law’s house, she is often abused because she has not brought sufficient dowry and mentally tortured and sometimes put to death. That’s why it is truly said a girl has never had her own home.

Laws related to dowry

The first national statute for the prohibition of dowry is the Dowry ProhibitionAct of 1961, giving or taking dowry is illegal under this act. The definition of dowry is “

  1. “means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly:
  2. by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or
  3. by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or any other person; at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of said parties but does not include dower or mahr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) applies”.

The definition of dowry is quite comprehensible If a person is found guilty of taking dowry he will be liable to pay Rs. 15000 as a fine or amount of dowry whichever is more, as per section 3 of this act.

In the case of S Gopal Reddy Vs State of Madhya Pradesh, The apex court observed that even if there is a demand for dowry made before the marriage is enough for “Dowry Demand” and the person can be punished under section 4 of this act.

If the relatives of the husband were taunting her for not bringing the sufficient amount of dowry the relatives can be booked under Section 304 of IPC, it was decided in the case of Amar Singh Vs State of Rajasthan.

As per Section 498 – A, Cruelty and abuse are described in this part of the IPC. The segment discusses how the husband and other relatives of the husband threaten her. Harassment can take two forms: emotional and physical. Anyone caught attempting to commit this crime faces a sentence of up to three years in prison as well as a fine.

There are several pieces of legislation but even in the 21st century, this menace of dowry exists. The main reason here is loopholes in the Act. As per section 2 of the dowry prohibition act of 1961 this giving or taking is dowry is illegal, but at the same time give gifts is permissible. This action cannot be used against the practice of providing presents during the marriage to the bride which is voluntarily given.

Because of this lacuna, the people term the dowry as a form of gift and escape from the provision of law. But the question here comes who will decide whether the gift provided was given voluntarily or under the pressure of the groom’s family.

Is education a solution?

Education is seen as a panacea for all problems. That’s why all the efforts have been made to educate people but there has been no attempt made to shift our society’s unequal power imbalance between men and women. It is believed that once people are made aware of dowry as a social sin, it would cease to exist.

This denies the idea that simple public awareness programs that do not address systemic issues would not result in long-term improvements in culture. This problem has been the subject of a nearly century-long public awareness movement. The only noticeable consequence is that nearly everyone today publicly opposes dowry and refers to it as a societal sin, but in India, almost every marriage has this negotiation of dowry.

In Uttar Pradesh there are slabs, the amount of dowry depends on the groom’s position. The higher the position the higher the amount of dowry. An IAS officer will get 50 lakh as a dowry while a middle-class man will get 10 lakh as a dowry.

Conclusion

Dowry is a social evil that most “educated” Indians “resent” but openly “practice” in their daily lives. It exemplifies the profound difference between philosophy and reality, between giving a speech and adhering to it, and between ethics and practicality. Marriage is no longer a union of hearts; it is more akin to a business agreement. The tradition of dowry violates the principle of equality. Despite modernization and the increasing presence of women in all aspects of life, society continues to discriminate against girls and boys.

To successfully solve such a complex dilemma, an organized social initiative is needed. It must be fought on legal, social, financial, cultural, and political fronts. There are several legal statutes, criminal statutes, and other laws in place to address this problem. But laws are not the only solution to the problem there has to be a change in the social setup. There must be a transformation of attitude towards girls and they must be seen as an asset and not a burden.

We claim to be civilized and free from any barbaric practice. We live in India which is a democratic country where everyone has equal rights. Does this practice justify this?. Are we civilized?


Author Janvi Vishnani is a first-year law student at SVKM’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) Navi Mumbai campus.