There’s this TV program called ‘Your Money’ on CNBC 18 which I sometimes watch. It has viewers calling in to seek help regarding financial planning, tax problems, investment options etc. It is remarkable how similar the financial goals of most callers are, regardless of how much they earn or how much property they own. Across the class divide, most of them want to set aside a sizeable chunk of their money for their children’s education and their daughters’ weddings and as such seek advice on how much to invest, and where, so as to be able to meet these goals in distant future.
The advisors on the show nod gravely in understanding and proceed to do the calculations in a matter-of-fact way. It apparently doesn’t strike them as at all odd that parents of infant-daughters should want to save so rigorously for their weddings –it doesn’t, because they are part of this very society and have in all probability seen someone in their own family worried about the impending expenses of an unmarried daughter’s wedding and the dowry/gifts .
The big, fat Indian wedding keeps getting bigger and fatter all the time at the expense of the girl’s parents. This is a pan-Indian phenomenon and is precisely why daughters are a huge liability in India–as huge as sons are an asset.
This saving -for-the girl’s-wedding mentality is about as timeless as our culture. I remember my own parents buying gold every couple of years since the time I was around ten. ‘ It’s for your wedding’, my mother would inform me triumphantly after every such buy.
I would have thought that the mini-revolution of sorts which we have witnessed in the last decade, with girls storming into workplaces as never before, living on their own and in general enjoying a freedom which was unimaginable not so long ago, would ease the pressure on the girls’ families to see marriage as the be all and end all for their daughters and to blow up all their savings on their weddings. It hasn’t. The more things change, the more they remain the same apparently. If anything, weddings seem to have become showier and dowries heftier.
Even in communities like mine where dowry is not explicitly asked for (but gladly accepted), parents of girls frequently spend way more than they can afford on the weddings. There is probably a genuine desire to compensate her for her share of the parental property (which she is expected to not claim if she has a single grateful bone in her body, considering how her parents paid through their noses for her wedding). Also, money spent on the wedding is often equated by the society to ‘love’ for the daughter–showing restraint amounts to scrimping or not loving your daughter enough, an accusation parents try hard to avoid attracting.
And then there is also an element of keeping up with the Joneses, wherein people try to outspend their social peers. . Our patriarchal society actively promotes such competition–after all, it suits the grooms’ families to the T.
At least part of the blame for perpetuating the dowry system must lie at the door of the girls’ families themselves. At the end of the day, the fact remains that grooms expect, accept and demand dowry because brides’ families are willing to oblige. The lure of unearned bounty cannot be underestimated. Everyone loves to win a lottery. If a boy gets to get married to a girl with a flat in south Mumbai to her name, it is like winning a lottery to him. Too bad for those who did not win.
All said and done, men and their families will continue to gleefully accept dowry as long as they can get it. Their sense of entitlement derives from tradition and the willingness of the girls’ families to follow those traditions.
The roots of the problem run deep and wide. The idea that girls’ parents owe the groom and his family is institutionalized in Hindu philosophy and tradition. In most forms of Hindu marriages, there is this concept of the var-dakshina, typically a gold sovereign, which is offered to the groom after the ritual of kanya-daan– ostensibly as a token of gratitude for having ‘accepted’ the bride. That is how messed up Hindu wedding rituals are, we are required to not only ‘give away’ our daughters as ‘gifts’, we are also supposed to show our gratitude by offering the groom var-dakshina.
The central idea of dowry is thus sanctified by religion itself– that feeling of entitlement so commonly observed in grooms’ families stems from having such socio-religious traditions by their side. And there is but a thin line separating that feeling of entitlement from patent greed.
These toxic customs have been around so long that people follow them unthinkingly. Their religious connection ensures that they are never questioned, just followed. They exercise a strange hold over the collective imagination of our society and one begins to subscribe to the underlying philosophy on a sub-conscious level, even when the rational part of the mind knows better.
Dowry harms women on several levels. It makes them a huge financial burden on their parents. It makes them unwanted. It perpetuates their inferior social status. And it leaves them severely shortchanged in property matters– notwithstanding the law, married women are socially expected to forsake their share of parental property since their parents have already given them so much by way of dowry. Never mind the fact that she was never given the option to choose.
If we really love our daughters, we must take a pledge to not participate in these anti-women traditions which serve to make them a burden. Daughters will stop being a burden the day their parents stop viewing them as a burden. We must concern ourselves only with their upbringing, education and general well-being and not obsess with their weddings. No dowry for our daughters.