Anti-dowry laws have existed in India since 1961, but the practice is still common — and the pressure on brides often leads to murder or suicide.
(Content warning: discussion of violence against women)
I still remember vividly the day I saw, in the newspaper, a photograph of a young woman crouching in front of a fridge, a washing machine and other assorted household goods and sundries. She looked so small and so fragile sitting there, dwarfed by her dowry, with her bridal henna staining her hands and forearms.
I don’t remember her name, and I’ve tried to find out, to no avail. She had contacted the newspapers because she could no longer bear the pressure her father was under; her fiancé and his family had continually pressured her father to provide more and more dowry, and under the latest outrageous demand (a car) she had finally spoken up. She got the conversation going, forced people to confront and acknowledge what they already knew: that the dowry system in India is cruel, that it places incredible pressure on the families of young women, and that it is the catalyst for so much violence against women.
Although anti-dowry laws have existed in India since 1961 (twelve years after Indian Independence), they are considered to be largely ineffective. The practice of asking for — and giving — dowry remains unchecked and rampant, and India has the largest number of dowry deaths in the world.
What is dowry?
Dowry is the practice of a bride’s family giving goods (household, durable), cash, jewelry and property at the time of her wedding. Although it is now interpreted as the bride’s family giving these things to the bridegroom, that wasn’t the historical significance of dowry. My grandfather told me that the origins of dowry were a lot more noble. In ancient times, families would gift their daughter property, jewelry, and other goods as a parting gift so that in leaner times, or in the unfortunate event of her husband’s death, she — and any children — would be cared for. I can attest to the truth of this; my grandmother’s family gave her silks, silver, diamonds and gold when she married my grandfather, and decades later, when our family fell on hard times, it was my grandmother’s dowry that saved us.
Dowry is different from bride price (a payment by the groom or his parents to the bride’s family) and from dower (property settled on the bride by the groom at the time of the wedding, and that remains under her control). It is an ancient custom and its existence seems to predate records of it; it is a common custom in Asia, Northern Africa and the Balkans.
Under Hindu law, a woman cannot inherit ancestral property (although that seems to be changing slowly), which is how dowry must have evolved. The dowry would be registered in the bride’s name and would be under her control. It was referred to as Stridhan (woman’s property in Sanskrit). However, this was restricted to “upper castes;” lower castes practiced bride price to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of income.
In 2013, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, official figures revealed that a dowry death occurred every hour in India, taking the lives of 8,233 women. That alarming figure hasn’t really come down, with dowry deaths continuing to occur, particularly in the northern and northeastern areas of the country. The country still sees 22 dowry deaths daily.
Highest at risk are young brides who are no longer under the protection of their parents, and are financially reliant upon their husbands. Women are often harassed by their husbands and in-laws for more dowry, even after the marriage takes place, and they are threatened with divorce. Divorce is still considered shameful in certain Indian societies, and parents of the bride will often pay up to ensure the safety of their daughters. In cases where they can no longer afford more pay, young brides are tortured, often to the point of death or suicide. Bride burnings (where brides are doused with kerosene and then set on fire) are common.
A notable case was the case of Geetanjali Garg. Her husband, Ravneet Garg, was a judge; so was his father. He demanded — and received – a huge dowry from Geetanjali’s parents, including the equivalent of $80,000 in cash, two luxury cars, 101 gold coins and assorted household goods. That wasn’t enough, however, and he continually pressured Geetanjali and her parents to give him more money, and to bear all the expenses of his household. During this time his bank accounts reveal a high savings rate, suggesting that his expenses were taken care of elsewhere. Because she didn’t give him a son (she gave birth to two daughters, Aasma and Aadiva), there was added pressure and cruelty from him and his parents, and Ravneet and his parents forced Geetanjali’s parents to buy him a plot of land in the name of a distant relative, which they did. Nine days before Geetanjali’s death, Ravneet assumed the ownership of the land by transfer. Geetanjali is alleged to have committed suicide; her note very clearly lays blame on her husband and his parents. She is just one among far too many.
There are a number of organizations that seek to quell the dowry menace; the gulabi gang often take justice into their own hands when the law fails them, as it often does. Led by Sampat Pal Devi, the women force formerly apathetic authorities to take action. If that fails, they mete out justice on their own against the practice of child marriage, dowry and other gender-related crimes against women.
They aren’t the first, though. Satya Rani Chadha railed against dowry and organized rallies, seminars and marches through the 1980s and ’90s. She was driven by grief over the loss of her own daughter, Shashi Bala, in a dowry-related death. According to her husband and in-laws, Shashi Bala was cooking in the kitchen when the stove she was cooking on “exploded,” killing her on the spot. She had been married 10 months previously, and was six months pregnant at the time of her death. Hers was another dowry death; her parents had been unable to supply her husband with his demand of a scooter. Grief-stricken, Chadha tried over and over again to bring her daughter’s husband to justice, but the law failed her, and when she finally managed to hold him accountable, he absconded and was declared missing. She established a shelter for women along with Shahjehan “Apa,” another grieving mother who had also lost a daughter to dowry; they became the anti-dowry movement’s most outspoken voices.
Majlis Legal Centre was co-founded by Flavia Agnes, a writer, lawyer, and women’s rights activist renowned for her legal services to destitute women, and who was also instrumental in the formation of FAOW (Forum Against Oppression of Women), a campaign group that is instrumental in dealing with issues against women, such as dowry, sexual harassment and domestic violence. Majlis offers legal services, conducts legal awareness training, engages in policy-level interventions, public campaigns and public interest litigation in order to help women access justice.
The IWWF (India Women Welfare Foundation) supports and empowers Indian women by providing them with free legal assistance and counseling online.
There can only be lasting change when people’s attitudes change. Indian society not only needs to challenge the status quo regarding dowry, it needs to reject it. A recent survey conducted by popular matrimonial website shaadi.com revealed that 72 percent of young Indian men would stand up to their parents against dowry. But as this article reveals, it’s not so simple, because 44 percent of young Indian men still think dowry is not problematic. Attitudes and beliefs such as these are deep-rooted in a country that struggles with change, and although famous public personalities such as Yogeshwar Dutt set a positive example, India still has a very long way to go.