The short answer is “NO”. Not only is dowry very much alive, but it is also quite the accepted norm in Kerala. Just take a look at our entertainment for quick and easy proof. Anything that involves an arranged marriage will most certainly have a ‘gift’ from the bride’s father to the groom’s family, be it gold, a car, a cupboard or, in some cases, a whole house.
Why is the plot of many Malayalam mega serials centred around the issue of dowry abuse? Once I happened to hear a friend’s aunt commenting on one of her regular serial heroines, “she has no right to raise her voice; she came empty-handed when she married into their family!” You may also have heard that random ammavan asking, “ethra kiiti?” to a newlywed groom’s dad. For a culture that boasts of strong families, we certainly do have a transactional way of looking at the basis of most families – marriage.
How did dowry originate?
India is not the only culture that involves monetary endowments at the time of marriage. It is practised in several forms around the world. Dowry is usually associated with arranged marriages, and according to one 2019 report, 90% of Indian marriages are still arranged by parents.
In pre-colonial India, dowry used to be a gift given to the bride so that she could retain her autonomy in her husband’s household. This practice was generally followed by the more affluent households and people from the higher castes. Later on, the British made dowry compulsory, as in, it became the only way to legalize an Indian marriage. Also, they outlawed women from owning property, hence, any wealth a woman gets at the time of marriage would automatically pass to her husband.
Also Read: The Not-So-Simple Malayali Weddings
From this point on, dowry began to take the ugly form we associate with it now – the bride’s family is obliged to give the groom’s family an amount of money in order to get married. It was no longer a safety net for women, but rather an easy way for entitled men and their families to get rich. Does that sound like selling cattle to you? It reminds of transactions where the seller pays the buyer to get the product off his hands. In such a case, one must assume that the product comes with certain burdens. What does that say to you about a woman’s worth in traditional India?
Deaths in Kerala
Many of us will remember Thushara, the 27-year-old young from Kollam, who was starved to death by her in-laws for not giving the promised amount of dowry. The husband and the mother in law starved Thushara, mother of two small children to death, all the while keeping her from visiting her parents. This kind of control the male partner’s family claims over a woman’s life and freedom stems from the notion that a woman belongs to the husband and his family after marriage.
Another recent dowry-related incident was the 2020 Uthara murder, where Sooraj, the husband allegedly killed her for not meeting his dowry demands. He had already received over 800 grams of gold and 5 lakh Rupees but allegedly wanted more. As you can see, this social evil has evolved from being a benevolent gift to the single most efficient thing patriarchy has developed to reinforce male privilege.
In Kerala alone, over 220 dowry deaths were reported in the last decade. Over 2000 cases of dowry-related abuse are reported every year, with the national average being over 7000 cases per year. This kind of prevalence of this social evil can only be attributed to the lack of awareness of the penal action against dowry among the people.
Trivialising the evil of dowry
This is not to say that there are no marriages that occur without a dowry. There are perhaps several weddings where sensible parties agree to not indulge in the evil of dowry. Yet, there are many who view this as a charity on the part of the groom and his family, and the fact that no dowry was asked or given becomes a qualification of the groom, to whom now the bride and her family are forever obliged.
There is also the attitude that giving dowry is the way things are, that it is an irrevocable custom of our society. This attitude can be seen in the “ethra kitti?” questions and the unconscious measurement of ‘how much my son is worth’. Words aren’t enough to talk about how corrosive the practice of dowry is for a woman’s self-worth and life, yet the fact is that more often than not, women themselves, particularly mothers-in-law make up a large fraction of dowry abusers.
The problems created by this evil practice range from female foeticide to entire families committing suicide. Notice the paradox here: Indian patriarchy makes it difficult for women to marry, and if they don’t marry, they get ostracised by the very same society. Is it any surprise Reuters rated India to be the most dangerous place for women in 2018?
Anti-Dowry Campaign by the Kerala Government
Dowry was outlawed in 1961. An amendment to the law in 1986 granted that any death within the first seven years of marriage could be treated as dowry death. Yet, dowry abuse is on the rise. In 2019, the Kerala Government launched a campaign to spread awareness about the evils of dowry. The goodwill ambassador of this campaign is Tovino Thomas, and by this, the Kerala Government hopes to eradicate the practice by 2025. The Women and Child Development Department have also declared November 26 as the anti-dowry day, with the first one held in 2019.
However, this social evil is here to stay if more of us don’t make enough noise and take a stand. All of us have to play a role in stopping this evil, not just the Government or celebrities. If you were to find a relative trivialising sati, how would you react? That is exactly how you should react to any talk of asking/giving dowry. True change can happen only if we, the common folk, weed this evil out of our society.