A Brand Called Dowry

It's been a while since a countrywide brigade - albeit small - of bridegroom-rejecting brides, flagged off by the petite 21-year-old Nisha Sharma, took the world by storm. Now that the dust has settled, it is time to examine whether the courageous stance of Sharma, Farzana and Vidya Balasubramaniam (the other two who called off their marriages at the last moment) was indeed a triumphant strike on patriarchy and social discriminations.

It is important to go back to a telling image of Sharma - with hennaed hands and a dowry of branded washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, music systems and a car in the background - as she announced that her protest was not against dowry per se but against the manner in which her future in-laws abused her father while demanding more. What stung Sharma was that her in-laws-to-be acted unilaterally against the spirit of a mutually brokered deal on the amount of dowry to be given. More dowry - that was the crux of the problem.

Again, most women who made news by canceling their weddings, did so only because they didn't agree to the excess of dowry. That dowry is being given and taken was not questioned by any of them. Their incomplete protests explain why the law against dowry is largely ineffective in India - it needs people to complain against the custom of dowry.

But who can stand up to the pressures of dowry today? Dowry is a skein that unites the country, from a 100 per cent literate Kerala, the economically developed Punjab and Gujarat, to a backward Bihar.

In a television channel debate, while responding to a question on her excessive dowry, Sharma replied that families spend only on two occasions - marriage and house construction.

The connection between a daughter's marriage and the economic strain a family undergoes has been reflected in countless stories and images of indebtedness in Indian literature, cinema and the media. Several films have shown the girl's father placing his pagdi (headgear) at the feet of the in-laws who threaten to walk out if their dowry demands are not met.

Today, the pleading father is missing. Instead, our young and modern film directors show marriages as affluent ceremonies, a naked show of wealth and greed. In fact, on the screen, the days of simple weddings are over.

Our talented advertisement creators slip in the 'money-is-needed-for-her-marriage' mentality in their campaigns. Most insurance company advertisements play upon the anxiety of the father - whether he can give his daughter a grand wedding and a huge dowry. His success as a father, the success of the marriage, all this hinges on the pot of gold he can provide.

A major Indian insurance company's advertisement shows a widow thank her late husband's sagacity in taking a life insurance policy, which enabled her to fulfill the all-important task of getting her daughter married. A parent's ultimate gift to the daughter, even now remains an opulent wedding and lots of branded items in the dowry.

This anxiety about a daughter's marriage has assumed a fever pitch in today's liberalized and globalized scenario, where gilt-edged aspirations touch the skies and are not necessarily grounded in reality. The families of many grooms-to-be see dowry as a one-way ticket up the economic and social ladder. And more particularly, in these times of increasing economic uncertainties.

Politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, executives and even unemployed men - all come with a price tag in the dowry market. At a recent workshop in Goa on the decreasing child-sex ratio in India, Arvind Kumar, Collector of Khammam district, Andhra Pradesh, stated that the current 'rate' of IAS officers in the marriage market is Rs 20 million!

The market in fact, has turned the solemn marriage ceremony into a huge brand event. Parents vie with one another to display how many consumer brands they will gift and what a grand spectacle they will organize. If it was possible to quantify the business conducted by big Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) Companies in the context of marriages and dowry in India, the figures would reveal a lot.

There cannot be a better advertisement for such companies than the image of Sharma's 'brand-full' dowry looming large behind her, in fact, dwarfing her as she declares why she put an end to her wedding.

For many years, experts have argued that since women are excluded from property rights, dowry amounts to their share of the property or streedhan (woman's wealth). It is their due and they must have it. But dowry by itself has rarely offered independence or blissful marriages to women.

The National Crime Records Bureau says there are over 6000 dowry-related deaths every year. The liberalized, consumer driven 1990s saw a surge in dowry related deaths - from 400 a year in the mid-80s to 6000 a year in the mid-90s. But government records grossly underestimate dowry related deaths (and other forms of physical and psychological) violence. Several activists and women groups claim that over 25,000 women are killed for dowry every year. Today, even South India reports a high figure for dowry-related death.

The Census of 2001 mirrors the damage the status of women and girls has undergone in the last decade. The declining child sex ratio in the country (923 girls1000 boys from 0-6 age group), largely due to sex selective abortions, has been reported mostly from so called 'developed' states. States which are industrialized, have large consumer markets and high economic growth. Punjab leads the pack (793), followed by Haryana (820), Delhi (865), Gujarat (879) and Maharashtra (917).

The data forces us to believe that urban, modern parents prefer sons. Many have abused the ultrasound technology to check whether they will have a daughter or son. One of the reasons cited for not wanting girls, is the liability they pose in terms of a dowry.

Social discrimination, patriarchy, consumerism, technology, violence against women - the cycle is only getting more vicious. It's time for future Sharmas and Farzanas to abandon the soft focus on dowry. It's time to abandon all those alluring images of a father bidding a bounteous farewell to his married daughter for love and for the family's 'honor'. It's time to reject totally the widely marketed brand called dowry.  


More by :  Chitra Padmanabhan

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