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Convenient Equality: Dowry By Any Other Name…

Posted: September 8, 2014

The practice of dowry is illegal under Indian law, but its evolving nature has escaped the eyes of lawmakers. This fantastic article takes a look at equality, the changing forms of dowry, and how it affects both men and women.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a male friend about his upcoming wedding. I had been reading a book by Ira Trivedi that (is rather poorly written but) put the cost of an average Indian middle class wedding at 7.4 lakhs, (four times the per capita GDP of India); the average upper middle class wedding, not including the clothing and jewelry, at 60 – 70 lakhs in Delhi, and 30 – 35 lakhs in other major cities of India.

These figures had blown my mind, and I became curious about my friend’s wedding costs. “No idea,” he said, “my fiancée’s father is taking care of it.” “You’ll split it later on?” I asked, hanging on to hope. “No. Her father insists he’d like to pay, and I don’t see a problem with that,” he said defiantly, noting my sad eyes.

Of course, none of us would see a problem with things if they unfairly and unequivocally favored us over others.  Yet, this is how most injustices propagate, slowly become entrenched, and enjoy unquestioned sanction.

Under the law, dowry has been defined as a transfer of valuable security or property; it doesn’t, in the letter, note the evolving forms of dowry, from land and cash to streedhan to fully paid weddings.  Making one party obliged to contribute money in any form – gifts or wedding expenses – is dowry, whether or not you call it by that name.  Demanding that the bride’s parents conduct the wedding is a widespread and audacious form of dowry-practice, opting out of cost-sharing is a subtler form. Why are we still in denial of practising dowry?

The Tradition Argument

 Extending some academicians’ (including women) superfluous claims that dowry began as harmless tradition, people continue to argue that the bride’s family paying and arranging for the wedding was rooted in practical considerations (such as celebrating the marriage in her native village) and has just carried on for the love of tradition. When something creates an unequal advantage and mandates its propagation, it hardly matters what started it: it is still exploitative. Defending unfair cultural practices by citing pure intentions and seemingly innocuous origins does more sociological harm than good.

Of Their Own Free Will

Apparently, we are witnessing a curious cultural phenomenon whereby parents of the bride, of their own free will, are demanding to pay for the wedding in its entirety. This is a fascinatingly restrictive definition of “free will,” but let us grant for a moment that years of social conditioning and pressure have no role to play and it really amounts to free will.

Why then do brides’ parents only and not grooms’ parents feel such a compelling call of free will? There are exceptions to the rule, such as when the groom’s family maybe politically influential, the bride orphaned or with a single non-earning parent. These events are too rare to support the free will theory.

“I Cannot Afford Their Tastes”

Another section will argue that a certain side might be financially better off than the other, and chooses to pay to scale up the wedding. It is incredible to me that it is almost always the bride’s side that is financially sound, and wishes to lavishly marry into a much poorer family. There are many commendably foolish and good-natured things brides’ parents do, but I do not believe this is one such.

In most Indian weddings, the groom’s guests are as numerous, and the gifts received equally shared. If a man really had any moral objection to his wife’s parents’ lavish celebrations, he must not partake in them; and if he has no choice but to partake in full, he must treat it as having no choice but to pay up his share.

“There Are Other Things We Pay For”

 Some men argue that the wedding celebrations aren’t entirely paid for the by the bride’s family, that the grooms pay for their own receptions (how generous indeed!), and often host a meal for the bride’s family after the wedding. In most cases, it is obvious that the costs involved are disproportionately smaller; as one of my colleagues pointed out in half-jest, the groom’s parties are single room events with at most 50 guests, of whom not more than 5 are from the bride’s side!

Moreover, this unequal division of costs supports the notion that commodifies women – that it is their parents’ duty to wed them, after which they pass over to the husband’s family, whose new social obligation it is to celebrate this transition.

When It Stops Being Convenient

Coming back to my friend – we had a heated discussion – after which he declared that though it may be unfair, upsetting the order of things is too inconvenient and, hence, he will choose not to. I presented my friend with a few hypothetical scenarios to check where convenience ends. Let us assume, I asked him, his parents-in-law do not find his marital home to their taste and wish to upgrade it, would he let them? He hesitated, but seemed to think that given their daughter was involved, he shouldn’t object.

Congratulating such open-mindedness, I asked him what if they offered to upgrade his car as well? He was less accepting of the idea, but on the principle he couldn’t waver. What if they upgraded his furniture, kitchen, wardrobe, and other things he would soon share with his wife? He said that would amount to interference, and he would have none of it; after all, his wife and he should be equal partners, and they must agree to a common lifestyle suitable to both.

 Equality kicks in when it becomes too inconvenient to remain unequal.

I wonder why the concept of equal partners, and a wedding suitable to both was not applicable from the start. Equality kicks in when it becomes too inconvenient to remain unequal. The story is telling – some men have more stretchable notions of conveniences – but in the end, playing along with convenience is both principally unjustified and not without its consequences.

How Dowry Subtly Affects Men

Dowry, doubtless, has horrendous implications for women, but it also affects men more than they are willing to admit.  By this, I do not only mean the threat of wrongful dowry complaints, which are not as rampant as made out to be. I am referring also to less serious complaints by some men, on being prodded about their income by prospective in-laws before finalising marriage, and on continual harassment about non-growth of income and assets and unsatisfactory living standards.

If you made it the financial and social responsibility of your wife’s parents to conduct your wedding – no matter how convenient that step was – it may soon become your overburdening financial responsibility to conduct your married life according to their expectations.  You cannot enjoy the former and complain about the latter. If you feel your wife’s family closely monitoring your assets and financial growth, know that you have only your old friend – tradition – to thank for it.

Let us put an end to dowry in all its forms

 I wasn’t able to convince my friend to pay his share for his wedding, but I let him know of my disappointment and disapproval.  The world is not changed in a day; at first, an unfair thing must be uncool to do; then heavily frowned upon; then perhaps it will diminish in practice grudgingly; and finally, it will go away.  I exhort all of you to apply high standards of equality to yourself and your partner – no matter what your gender – to keep in mind the world you are responsible for, and to at least socially penalise, unfair practices until lawmakers begin to care.

Pic credit: dskley (Used under a CC license)

I am associated as an advisor and volunteer with Magasool, a not-for-profit initiative

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