Dowry: Ancient custom or modern malaise?
Dina M Siddiqi 

A 1996 UNDP study of dowry observed that in previous surveys, respondents rated dowry as their third most pressing problem but by 1996, both rural and urban respondents in Bangladesh felt that dowry was their most significant problem. The study goes on to state that dowry seems to have started only after independence and has increased dramatically since the 1980s.

Dowry and dowry-related violence, in the highly coercive and often horrific forms we see today, appear to be of fairly recent origin in Bangladesh. I would like to suggest possible reasons for the emergence and widespread institutionalization of dowry demands in present-day rural and urban Bangladesh. Like all cultural phenomena, dowry has had different meanings in different places and times. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines dowry as the property that a wife or wife's family gives to her husband upon marriage. It notes that dowries have a long history in Europe, Africa, India and other parts of the world. Giving dowry to daughters at the time of marriage, especially in lieu of inheritance was common practice in medieval Europe; studies show that even women who became nuns insisted on taking their dowries with them as they entered convent life. And of course, there are many societies in Africa that have either bride price or dowry as part of marriage exchanges. Dowry, in other words, is not a static custom but one embedded in changing socio-political and economic formations. One needs to ask, then, what dowry means today in various parts of South Asia, and what its relationship is to domestic violence and women's status in general.

Given popular associations between stridhan, kanyadan and dowry, it's tempting to come up with a unified narrative of dowry in South Asia, one that starts from the Vedic period and ends in 2002. Such an approach, paradoxically, ends up being profoundly ahistorical, and often extremely partisan, not least because what we call South Asia simply did not exist as a coherent cultural complex for much of its history. Moreover, as Romila Thapar and others have pointed out, carving up histories of the region into an ancient golden age that went into decline, or into Hindu, Muslim and British (why not Christian?) periods merely reproduces earlier orientalist stereotypes, glossing over complex social organizations and cultural formations on the ground.

But we do need histories. Tracing the shifting meanings of apparently timeless cultural traditions, (whether it be sati, parda or dowry) is a critical weapon in the struggle for social justice, as activists have long known. In this context, one of the most interesting theoretical interventions on the question of dowry comes from feminist historian, Veena Talwar Oldenburg. In her forthcoming book on colonial Punjab, Professor Oldenburg argues that, under the pressures of the cash economy introduced by the British, dowry, like many other pre-colonial structures, was profoundly transformed. In her words, "The will to obtain large dowries from the family of daughters-in-law, to demand more in cash, gold and liquid assets, becomes vivid, after leafing through pages of official reports that dutifully record the effects of indebtedness, foreclosures, barren plots and cattle dying for lack of fodder. The voluntary aspects of dowry gradually evaporate. Dowry becomes dreaded payments on demand that accompany and follow the marriage of a daughter."

Now, one need not accept wholesale this provocative proposition about the omnipotence of the colonial state or of the malleability of the practice of dowry. Still, as I hope to show, Oldenburg's thesis provides an important insight into the links between structural changes in the economy and shifts in institutions like dowry in the recent past.


It's not unusual to hear the argument that dowry as a practice was restricted to the Hindu community until very recently. Whatever the validity of this statement, we need first and foremost to qualify the category of 'Hindu' community. Marriage among the different groups which, in the 19th century and afterwards came to be labeled Hindu, took a variety of forms. Dowry or voluntary gift giving was particularly linked to the Brahmanical form of marriage, which was prevalent mostly among the propertied and the upper castes. Notably, these were the same groups among whom inheritance and coparcenary rights for women did not exist. In this context, one plausible interpretation is that dowry represented a daughter's share of her family's wealth in the form of a pre-mortem inheritance. That is, it was a substitute for the inheritance of immoveable property. It follows that class/caste and regional variations in inheritance customs would have considerable bearing on the practice of dowry. Along the lines of Oldenburg, Ranjana Sheel contends that dowry today, with its forced demands for gift-giving, derives from the colonial reinvention of a tradition whereby patriarchal Hindu traditions and customs were selectively appropriated and deployed. Simultaneously, the colonial restructuring of the socio-economic order strengthened the process of Brahmanization that in effect institutionalized and expanded dowry to other classes and castes of the society.

These are plausible arguments for the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the meantime, dowry related violence against women appears to have intensified and increased greatly in the past few decades in 'Hindu' as well as non-Hindu communities in South Asia. Indeed, highly publicized dowry-related violence was a primary mobilizing force in the Indian feminist movement of the 1970s. Ironically, many of the same feminists and women's groups who were active then are now charged with ignoring or being disillusioned with the dowry issue. Their response has been to claim that dowry, as opposed to domestic violence, has been overstated and too often sensationalized in the media, especially in the West. After all, what could be more exotic (and suggestive of sati, so emblematic of 'eastern barbarity') than reports of women being burnt to death in their kitchens by their own mothers-in-law? Recent studies by groups such as Vimochana in Bangalore, do suggest that the anti-dowry movement has been a little too 'successful,' in that domestic violence cases are often inaccurately classified as dowry deaths. Moreover, trying to squeeze women's accounts of violence into the box of dowry harassment, can result in defendants being easily acquitted in court. In a survey of Indian women carried out by the International Center for Research on Women in Washington DC, researcher Nata Duvvury found that dowry had been overemphasized as a cause of abuse, and that the dowry focus distorted responses to the problem of domestic violence. The Research Center for Women's Studies in Bombay found that even investigators in all female police units set up to handle crimes against women often took only dowry related cases seriously and avoided other "private family matters" they felt were not a concern for law enforcement officials. In fact, Oldenburg insists that until we get away from burning and dowry, we'll never get close to understanding violence against women in India.

In the case of Bangladesh, media and human rights reports on violence against women are horrifying, and seem to be multiplying at an exponential rate. However, despite the plethora of such reports, it's not always clear what is dowry related violence and what is domestic violence in general. This is an important distinction, one that concerns the production and validation of evidence. Without sustained research, one risks succumbing to a circular logic of knowledge production and validation -- of newspaper reports being taken up by activists and rights groups, and circulated back as legitimate evidence.

Problems of classification aside, the escalation of dowry related violence and deaths is undeniable. According to one source, deaths in India related to dowry demands have increased 15 fold from the mid 1980's, from 400 a year to 5,800 by the middle of the 1990s. Statistics abound and I won't bombard you with them. What's striking is that the period of intensification of dowry violence, from the 80's to the late 90s coincides with economic liberalization and structural adjustment measures. India now has the fastest growing middle class in the world, and the consumption of modernity through the consumption of material goods has become all-pervasive. At the same time, with the opening up of the market, the gap between rich and poor has increased, as has the economic uncertainty facing most people including the relatively well-off. It is not surprising then, as one activist noted, that tradition has been transformed into a way to escape poverty, augment one's wealth or to acquire the modern conveniences now advertise daily on television.

Social commentators are all too willing to attribute 'rampant consumerism and rampant social greed' for the new prominence of dowry demands, without delving too deeply into causes. This is where Veena Oldenburg's thesis can be usefully explored, to elucidate perhaps yet another change in the meaning and function of dowry, in the late twentieth century. The link between marriage, money, social mobility and social polarization gains support from a number of studies, which show that the lower ranks of the middle classes, and women from poorer families are especially vulnerable to dowry and its demands. Taking account of social and material polarization throws light on the heightened consumerism and greed that are taken to underlie middle class dowry demands. In this respect, it's critical not to individualize the problem, to demonize specific men (and their mothers) but to locate the question in a larger structural framework of social and economic pressures. Again, in the context of Bangladesh, we see that it's only in the post-independence period, especially the 1980's and 1990's that dowry deaths emerge as a serious problem. A 1996 UNDP study of dowry observed that in previous surveys, respondents rated dowry as their third most pressing problem but by 1996, both rural and urban respondents in Bangladesh felt that dowry was their most significant problem. The study goes on to state that dowry seems to have started only after independence and has increased dramatically since the 1980s. This is also the period of increased social differentiation and disenfranchisement, especially in rural areas. It's also marked by highly visible demonstrations of wealth and the possibilities for capital accumulation, especially through migration to the Middle East. I don't want to speculate too much but given that the number of desertions, divorces and multiple marriages by men has also skyrocketed in the last two decades, perhaps the term Demand System, as anthropologist Rehnuma Ahmed once characterized it, rather than dowry, might more accurately capture some aspects of the social reality of Bangladesh. For the meaning -- and practices -- of marriage appear to have shifted considerably for most classes and groups.


From the Indian evidence, it is clear that the meanings and effects of dowry have historically varied with class, caste and region. Partha Banerjee claims that despite its recent appearance in traditionally 'incidence-free' areas and communities, dowry deaths are concentrated in urban, affluent upper caste Hindu communities. If we look at geographical distribution, the highest numbers of dowry incidents since 1987 are concentrated in the so-called Hindi-Hindu heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, etc. The traditionally 'incidence-free' non-Hindi speaking south Indian and eastern states (such as West Bengal) have seen a rapid rise in dowry deaths since 1987. By contrast, a number of states as varied as Kerala, Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir, and Manipur still have low incidences of dowry deaths. The latter group of states tend to have higher literacy rates, more women in the productive labour force, higher standards of living and, in the case of the North East, more flexible and equitable marriage practices. In other words, these are places where the social organization is such that the status of women has tended to be traditionally high. However, it appears that demands for dowry as part of marriage practices have in the last decade or so, become much more common among some scheduled castes, 'tribals' and Muslim communities in India. Now, if we accept that dowry demands have become a critical avenue for social mobility in the face of liberalization and rising economic disparity, we might gain some insight into why dowry demands are no longer limited (if they ever were) to caste Hindu groups in South Asia. In addition, I would venture to say that in Bangladesh, there has been for quite some time a crisis of masculinity, especially of subaltern masculinity. The inability of the male to fulfill the role of the Bhatar, paradoxically enough, contributes to the escalating violence associated with dowry demands.

The above analysis begs the question of why it should be dowry that becomes a primary vehicle for social mobility. The low status of women in general -- in everyday cultural discourse and as productive members of society cannot help but have such repercussions.


Let me summarize my arguments in conclusion:

Rather than conceptualizing dowry as a problem of religion or of community, it would be more productive to explore issues of social stratification cutting across religious communities in contemporary South Asia. The concept of religious communities with rigid boundaries is problematic and susceptible to becoming politicized and damaging for women, as in the Shahbano case in India.

In the same vein, it would be misleading to conceptualize strategies around South Asia as an exceptional cultural zone, for instance as a zone in which notions of equality would be completely inappropriate.

The societies under consideration are sufficiently complex and diverse, so that we need to locate causes that would have similar effects on diverse cultural formations and marital practices. What is it that makes the pursuit of dowry so widespread, and so potentially violent? This is a question that requires much more sustained research in the future.

Dr. Dina M. Siddiqi is Senior Associate, Alice Paul Center for Women's Studies University of Pennsylvania, USA.


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 19, 2002


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