|Young women enrolled in a |
make-up certification course in Mumbai
Before I began teaching about Indian joint families and arranged marriage about fifteen years ago, I thought of the term “dowry” as something colonial settlers in America used to give upon their wedding day. I vaguely recalled something about embroidering linens for a trousseau. In India, dowry is a whole different matter. It can be contentious or a non-issue, unsatisfactory or generous, and, in some cases, can make or break a girl’s happiness in her future home. Unfortunately, in tragic and rare circumstances, it can lead to her death.
In the article “Dowry in North India: Its Consequences for Women” (Uberoi, ed. 1993), Ursula Sharma defines dowry as a series of gifts from the bride’s family to the groom’s family, not only a single gift on the occasion of the wedding itself. This sets up an expectation of the level of gift-giving that will last throughout her lifetime.
“It commences with the sweets and cash conventionally made over at the engagement ceremony, and continues throughout the lifetime of the bride and into that of her children, for her brothers must make substantial contributions to her children’s marriage expenses. When they arrange the marriage of a son, parents do not just look forward to the dowry they will receive at the wedding. They look to the bride’s family’s general capacity to give.” (343)
For those who haven’t studied this phenomenon, it’s important to note that a dowry is given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family and not the other way around. If the groom’s family gives gifts of goods or service, it is referred to as bride wealth or bride price. Gifts of bride price are much less common in India than in other patrilocal societies (in which the bride moves in with her husband and his parents after marriage), although it may be found in some communities. In many patrilocal societies, bride price is given as a rule, since the groom’s family is compensating the bride’s family for the “gift” of the girl, her labor, and her future children. However, in India, dowry is the more common marriage transaction.
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In an early article on the subject, Jack Goody (1963) argued that dowry is “a form of inheritance.” This model would mean that the bride’s parents were providing the young couple with the daughter’s portion of the family inheritance early, prior to the parents’ passing, to ensure she was well cared for. But importantly, the dowry is not paid to the bride, allowing her (and her husband) freedom to use it as they wish. Therefore, Sharma argues that dowry is a “lateral transference of property” from the bride’s parents to the groom’s parents:
“Contrary to the dominant ideology and the terminology of traditional Hindu law, dowry property is not women’s wealth, but wealth that goes with women.” (352)
While Indian language and culture express the concept of dowry as inheritance (the etic view), anthropologists understand it as a gift that binds the parents and families to one another, beginning their formalized relationship (the emic view). Therefore, “Women are the vehicles by which is it transmitted rather than its owners.” (352) Indeed, brides have no say how dowry gifts are distributed or utilized by her husband’s family.
Specifically, it is the mother-in-law (dadi) who has the most control over how dowry goods are distributed and used. She also largely controls the pace at which gifts are given, especially if they are household goods, jewelry or clothing. Cash, on the other hand, is usually controlled by the father-in-law.
There is a unique relationship between the mother-in-law and the young bride, which lasts for life. As a rule, brides move in to their husband’s households after the wedding with the understanding that they will need to subsume their desires to the expectations of the mother-in-law, no matter how different these expectations are from how the young woman has lived previously.
In an ideal situation, the mother-in-law can be kind and understanding. In a less-than-ideal situation, the mother-in-law can make every day a challenge to get through or, potentially, worse. It is the young bride’s responsibility to work through these problems and adapt, especially because she has no choice; she is often far from her family and support system. Divorce is rare (but becoming more common in cities) since it throws a black cloud over her family, and makes it more difficult for unmarried sisters to find a match.
Traditional Indian culture has mythologized the wedding as the moment of Kanyadana (or kanya dan), the “gift of a virgin.” With this ideal as a backdrop to the proceedings, any dowry bargaining has to be discreet. Ideally, the bride’s father must act as if the gifts selflessly come from his heart, while the groom’s family shouldn’t demand anything. However, Sharma explains, the reality can be quite different. Because dowry is a status marker for both the bride’s and groom’s families, it is a subject that can be fraught with tension.
In these cases, the measure of the bride is in the quantity and quality of the goods her family can provide. Sharma explains,
“More than it ever used to be, the dowry is one of the major determinants of whom a woman may expect to marry and how she will be treated by her in-laws after marriage. What a bride is worth is measured more and more by the amount of material goods and cash her family can provide rather than by the reputation and prestige with which they can endow her, the skills they have ensured she has acquired.” (p 352)
When the dowry does not live up to expectations, the bride may be treated poorly in the home, left by her husband, or, in the tragic scenario known as “dowry death,” killed by the husband’s family. The division of women as wife-givers (the wife’s family) and wife-takers (the husband’s family) prevents the unification of women against dowry crimes. Unfortunately, they are common enough for state governments to have created a special police department to which these crimes are reported: the Anti-Dowry Cell.
|Looking at a friend's wedding album|
at the train station
Interestingly, I have not found evidence for dowry as a cause for much tension in the interviews I've conducted in Mumbai. This, and other anecdotal evidence, contradicts Sharma's assertion that dowry is increasing, especially among urban families. So far, I take this as a reflection of their level of education (all of the girls have been middle to upper-middle class, most with post-graduate studies). Sharma's article did not specify the socio-economic level of her subjects.
Many of the young married women I've spoken to proudly declare their marriages to be free of dowry - that their husband's family did not ask for any nor did their fathers offer it. They seem to believe dowry is an old-fashioned expectation, and they, as modern women, should not have to suffer through it. On the other hand, they all have stories about unions gone wrong due to dowry issues. It certainly is a fascinating and complex issue (what in India is not complex?) that warrants further study.