This is the paradox of dowry deaths in India. In India, according to the journalist, Rahul Bedi, quoted above, women represent the divine (Bedi). They are viewed symbolically and religiously as the embodiment of the power of the Goddess Shakti, participants with Shiva in the ongoing creation of the universe (American Institute of Vedic Studies). However, because of their low perceived economic value, they are seen as bringing nothing to a marriage except the value of their dowry (People’s Union for Civil Liberties).
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If the value of this payment, whether in money or in goods, does not match the expectations of the groom’s family, the bride may find herself the victim of a variety of mistreatment. She may be isolated, tortured, emotionally abused, or, in all too many cases, murdered by immolation (Prasad). The incidence appears to have remained at high levels or to have increased over several decades (Bedi) (Williams). This practice seems clearly to constitute a violation of civil rights, according to international legal norms (Carlson-Whitley).
The phenomenon of women being regarded, in practical terms, as having no value of their own is not new. In fact, widows have been shunned from public events, since they are considered traditionally to have no reason to live apart from their husband (Narasimhan). As an expression of this attitude, for many generations, women have been expected to express their loss of purpose in life upon widowhood by throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre or into his grave.
This practice, called suttee, or sati, was considered the ultimate expression of wifely devotion. So admired and cherished was the custom the sati became a sort of saint, capable of giving a blessing. The site of her burning or burying becomes a pilgrimage site (Hawley). As in Europe, sites of pilgrimage are potential sources of profit.
The different value placed on males and females starts early in life. Families welcome male babies over female babies, as well. The more recent introduction of ultrasound fetal sex testing has led to the frequent practice of female abortion (Williams). This has encouraged the proliferation of profitable ultrasound clinics (Narasimhan). Thus, the connection between devaluing women, profit, and violence towards females, has been present for a long time in India.
Dowries, a custom for centuries as well in India, are also an expression of women’s lower intrinsic value to families and to society. A dowry was traditionally a gift from the parents of the bride to their daughter of gold jewelry as well as, potentially, livestock. This was meant to give her a measure of independence, if, for example, her husband were unable to support her and her children. No man would take her wedding gold from his wife, even if he were starving.
In 1961, the custom was outlawed in India, but it continues to occur in many marriages (Bedi). Today dowries and dowry demands reflect the increased availability of and interest in material goods, including refrigerators and motorized scooters(Williams). Williams suggests that as people in India occupying the very lowest economic levels move up, they aspire to greater access to consumer items that are visible, but somewhat beyond their means.
If a dowry is not judged to be adequate by the groom’s family, the groom’s family may retaliate in a variety of ways. For example, the bride may be kept from communicating with her family, and confined to the groom’s family’s house.
Since Indian women often return home to their own family during pregnancy and for several months afterwards (BabyCenter), this isolation could make a woman’s pregnancy much less comfortable and perhaps even less safe. Some woman are battered, and overworked to force them to pressure their family to cough up more funds or tangible gifts. Many families do comply in order to relieve their daughter’s suffering.
If the bride or her family resist, the groom’s family may choose to eliminate the bride entirely. This will allow their son to start over again, with another woman, and thereby obtain a new dowry (Wilson). In this case, the bride may be pestered and stressed to the point where she chooses to commit suicide (Prasad).
The most dramatic way of dealing with a recalcitrant bride is to dress her in a synthetic sari, dowse her in a flammable substance, and then ignite her, claiming that she was the victim of an accidental kitchen fire. Drowning and poisoning are also used (Bedi).
Convictions are rare. Families worry that pursuing murderers legally will impair their other daughters’ chances of making a good marriage (Bedi). The overloaded Indian legal system cannot handle the volume of cases that are actually brought against grooms and their families.
Public outrage finally forced the passage of a law that designated any death of a woman within seven years of marriage as suspicious, but the practice of extorting money from brides continues (Bedi). However, the Indian public may experience what might be described as “dowry death fatigue” from hearing about these murders so often (Williams).
The mechanism of the dowry has thus been changed drastically from the role it played in earlier centuries, and instead coopted as a source of money or goods. It is almost as though the bride were an ATM machine. If the woman’s family doesn’t spit out the desired rupee value to the groom’s family, then she will be eliminated with violence.
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To Western observers the inevitable question is, “How is it that Indian families can allow their daughters to be so mistreated in what is meant to be a loving relationship for life?” After all, the parents of a boy may also be the parents of a girl, as well. The sister of an abusive groom can become a victim herself, at the hands of another family.
The abuses of women around the dowry seem to be part of a larger pattern of ambivalence regarding the role and rights of women, starting with terminations in the womb, and leading on to disposing of a bride. Women, although they have had the vote since 1920, do not have the influence within the family to defend themselves (People’s Union for Civil Liberties).
Even the increasing gender imbalance caused by the female abortion craze (Narasimhan), has not apparently increased the value of females. The laws against the practice have not seemed to have an impact. The spiritual importance assigned to women in Hinduism, as symbolic co-creators of the universe, does not translate into equal treatment or even non-negative treatment, even in modern India.
The problem of dowry deaths thus seems to be resistant to change. The solution to these untimely deaths and torture of women may lie in raising the economic conditions for everyone, so that dowries are not the only source of unearned bonuses for families. Pressure from the poor opinion of other countries may also lead this large and ambitious nation to change. In the meantime, shelters have been established to give a safe haven to victims.
American Institute of Vedic Studies. Yogini: The Enlightened Woman. 2013. Web.
BabyCenter. “Motherhood Around the World.” 2013. Baby Center. Web.
Bedi, Rahul. “Indian dowry deaths on the rise.” The Telegraph (2012). Web.
Carlson-Whitley, Angela K. “Dowry Death: A Violation of the Right to Life under Article Six of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Universty of Puget Sound Law Review 17 (1993-1994): 637. Web.
Hawley, John Stratton. Sati: The Blessing and the Curse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Web.
Narasimhan, S. “India: from sati to sex-determination tests.” 1994. Popline. Web.
People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Why do dowry deaths occur? September 1982. Web.
Prasad, Devi. “Dowry Related Violence.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 25.1 (1994). Web.
Williams, Carol. “India ‘dowry deaths’ still rising despite modernization.” LA Times ( 2013). Web.
Wilson, Dean. “Indian baby suffers horrendous burns in shocking dowry dispute.” The Telegraph. Web.