The dowry is a well-established and widespread practice in India. The dowry tradition is not just a simple Hindu tradition, it is a more complex tradition due to its historicity. With the great influence of British colonialism, the tradition evolved into something very different. Since the British colonial administration (also known as the British Raj- British rule on the Indian subcontinent) entered India (19th century), this tradition has been incorporated into Indian culture and is discussed in various debates in the context of gender, the capitalist tool, and the remnant of colonial hegemony. From the past to the present, the dowry tradition has developed to meet the needs of the capitalist order and economy in India and has undergone a process of commodification. The fact that the dowry practice has become a capitalist and commodity by being systematized, in other words, it has the nature of a commercial transaction, occupies an important cultural and socioeconomic problem regarding the role and position of women in India, Indian marriage, gender inequality, misogyny, the violence against women, and dowry death. In this article, the dowry tradition in India will be explained historically and will be evaluated in the context of gender and colonialism.
The dowry is a transfer of property, assets, money, goods, ornaments, in short, any kind of wealth, from the wife and her family to the man and his family at the time of her marriage, in other words, from the bride to the bridegroom (Kumar, 2021). Although it is beyond the scope of the article, it is important to state that the dowry does not belong to a particular culture, in order to understand the transformation and impact of the dowry tradition in India. The dowry tradition has been one of the most common cultural patterns of marriage, seen in many parts of the world in the past. Although this tradition has disappeared in most places today, it is also still implementing in India, Southern Asia more generally, as well as in some parts of the Middle East and Africa. Most common in cultures that are strongly patrilineal and that expect women to reside with or near their husband’s family (patrilocality), dowries have a long history, especially in Europe, South Asia, and Africa. But given the British colonial influence on this tradition in India, it should be briefly stated its historical situation in Europe. The dowry tradition dates back to ancient Greek (800–300 BCE) and the early Roman Empire (200 BCE), where dowry gifts were instituted under Roman Law and became common across Eurasia until the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century (Khanal & Sen, 2020). From the 13th century, court records reveal that the dowry tradition was widely practiced in England, and marriageable daughters were seen as to be a valuable asset for their guardians to enhance the family’s social status in England (Kumar, 2021).
Unlike the European understanding of dowry, the tradition took place in Indian culture in a different way and in accordance with its religious traditions and understandings. Daughters were given in marriage as religious gifts (known as Kanyadan) and dowry was considered as additional gifts (known as Dakshina) accompanying the main gift (Rastogi & Therly, 2006). In the ancient times of India, the Dakshina did not constitute a hindrance, oppression, or death in women’s lives. In prehistoric times in India, women were regarded as chattel and so it was the father of the bride (if there is no father, then another man in her family as a guardian), and not the bridegroom’s, who was regarded as justified in demanding payment at the time of marriage (Altekar, 1938). The father, or another guardian of the bride, lost control over the labour of his daughter after her marriage and was paid in kind to compensate for it and there is evidence for women used to bring large amounts of gifts to the bridegroom’s family at the marriage (Rastogi & Therly, 2006).
Some scholars examine changes in the caste system and institution of marriage from a post-colonial perspective as colonial powers’ recoding of the social order on behalf of Indian society (Oldenburg 2002; Khanal & Sen, 2020). With the British colonial rule capturing India, the essential traditional meaning, content, and application of dowry has changed. Prior to the arrival of the British in India, even land was not seen as a commodity that could be bought and sold; because, notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it (Oldenburg, 2002). With the colonial rule, the British patriarchal mindset and property understanding entered India, and “British ideals of societal hierarchy transformed previously fluid Indian institutions into the more rigid terms of class, caste, and gender” (Khanal & Sen, 2020, p.4). According to Oldenburg, this led to the control of land ownership and economic administration being given to men, and thus the Indian male became the legal dominant subject. In other words, the entire economy started to become masculine. This was one of the key factors that made male children more desirable. The dowry-infanticide blight was used to justify the annexation of India. Colonialism, it was claimed was a civilizing mission (Khanal & Sen, 2020).
The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue became particularly crucial for women. The economic understanding and commodification brought by colonialism also transformed the dowry. Families began to appear to be demanding cash, jewelry, or expensive durable consumer goods at the time of marriage. In India’s religious culture, a gift-giving tradition, which can be regarded as the root of the dowry tradition, was already in practice. But, British colonialism in India greatly influenced it and transformed it into a more patriarchal, unequal, commodified, and complex system. So, the tradition became the dowry system as it was renamed and reshaped during the colonial period.
In fact, the dowry was not something that was common and practiced by everyone as a Hindu tradition prior to the British Raj. Before the colonial rule, in rich and royal families of India, some gifts used to be given as dowries to sons-in-law at the time of marriage (Altekar, 1938). The practice was historically confined to the upper caste community of Northern India (Soni, 2020). So, as well as it is conceived as Kanyadan, in the existing literature, dowry is also discussed as Streedhan, a woman’s property, and bequest. “As in traditional Hindu families, a daughter had no share in her parental family’s property, and dowry was offered (arguably) as a daughter’s premortem inheritance or anticipated inheritance” (Soni, 2020, p. 5). As Kanyadan or as Streedhan, the literature argues that the dowry in ancient Indian society was an uncommon and voluntary-based tradition. Contemporary understanding and practice of dowry have no connection or similarity with the context of Kanyadan and Streedhan. Moreover, the practice of dowry in contemporary society is more identifiable with the groom price (Srinivas, 1984), in which the amount of dowry payment is often guided by the market value of a groom (Soni, 2020).
Today, dowry as a cultural practice is an integral part of marriage in India, where arranged marriages are mainly the norm. This is because the marriage institution is commodified. In the modern sense, the dowry tradition became one of the factors that ensure general welfare, as it turns into the quality of making money (i.e. income) in Indian society (Srinivas, 1984). Initially, dowry was a social tradition, but over time, it became a social evil, and a voluntary gift turned into a forceful demand (Kumar, 2021). When the dowry demands were not met, the deaths of the brides began to come to light. There is no available database on specific dowry deaths (Kumar, 2021). However, as Kumar states, there are some common causes such as kitchen/gas accidents, self-immolation, and domestic violence. Though all people practicing the dowry system are not at all involved in domestic violence, but the link between the two is complementary. Since most dowry demand-related deaths are disguised as accidental or death related, it is a fact that the estimated death tolls are inaccurate and the actual number of deaths associated with dowry will never be ascertained. The death of brides when the dowry cannot be met means for men the option of marrying again and fetching a new dowry (Jutla & Heimbach, 2004).
To curb the menace of dowry-related crimes, the government of India enacted the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961 (Kumar, 2021). Also, to legally reduce the existing understanding of gender inequality in society, later the amendment made in 2005 in the Hindu Succession Act, daughters were given equal rights in the paternal property (Kumar, 2021). Though The Dowry Prohibition Act of India prohibited the dowry and Indian civil law makes provisions for divorce, the socio-cultural upbringing and entrenched belief in it strongly discourage divorce (Biswas, 2013). Also, the loopholes in the laws (such as dowry can still be maintained due to the fact that gift-giving is not prohibited even though dowry is prohibited) are insufficient to prevent laws and socio-cultural problems and understandings. The Dowry Prohibition Amendment Act of 1984 helped narrow the loopholes in the Dowry Prohibition Act and increased the punishment associated with dowry negotiations (Khanal & Sen, 2020). These laws and acts can be seen as the protection and prevention mechanisms of the state against dowry and murders. But, as it still exists as a reality and problem of the day, studies and reports show that actions and policies are insufficient to prevent dowry and deaths caused by dowry. In addition to this, most Indian women are little educated and preferably to play the role of perfect housewives which confines their knowledge and lessens their scope to the financial support of family. Their limited access to reproductivity and unpaid domestic chores make them nugatory. Thus, the only focus is on dowry. In this respect, it can be said that women are nothing but the sack of dowry for society.
From a post-colonial perspective, the dowry tradition today was shaped by the colonial power’s subjugation of the Indian people. As can be observed from the dowry case of India, colonialism is not just about the passing of the sovereignty of one state to the control of another state; it is also related to the exploitation of the social structures of the exploited state such as the society’s culture, lifestyles, beliefs, and traditions. Historically, the alienation of people in India after British colonialism is in question. Although British colonialism in India ended at the end of the 1940s, the Indian society experienced a kind of identity conflict after the British colonization.
The explanations for continuing the dowry system have to do with socio-cultural, religious, and economical factors as it is a complex phenomenon (Rastogi & Therly, 2006, p. 67). The cause of gender discrimination and unequal marriage as a class/caste problem in Indian society originates from the distribution of unequal property and its accumulation into some money-minded people which ultimately culminates in a malfunction of dowry through the institutionalization of matrimony. Also, as Oldenburg (2002) discusses, the critical problem of the dowry system is that making a dowry demand is a cultural oxymoron that bears no resemblance to the historical meaning and practice of this institution. So, since cultural and social aspects of Indian society are also highly influenced by the British's thoughts and mentalities, this is also a concern of national freedom struggle for India to establish a society that is based on the root of traditions, truth, and equality.
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Figure 5: CNN. (2019). Women gather to participate in the 620-kilometer "Women's Wall" against gender discrimination in Kerala. [Photograph]. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/31/india/india-kerala-dowry-deaths-intl-hnk-dst/index.html