Curse of dowry

Source : Google photo

Synopsis: There are countries where the curse of dowry still prevails. The blog looks at the reasons and how this curse can be lifted so that all men and women can choose whom they wish to marry and bring about the fundamental changes in their patriarchal societies.

Once I was in a village in the Eastern part of India that was not considered remote because it was only some 40 kms from a major city but the village had no paved road, no running water and no electricity. There was only one doctor of questionable qualification and only one grade school run by an unqualified teacher that served only a few children of farmers.

The village was agricultural like most villages in India are so the weather, the crop price and the price of seed or fertilizer was their favorite topic other than the local gossip that included some village scandal or the new movie that a fellow ran using a generator and a bed sheet stretched on two bamboo poles. People eager for entertainment did not mind the bamboo bench, the flies and mosquitos attracted to the Petromax light that an urchin hired by the manager had to pump up from time to time.

The village could have been anywhere but the story was the same. These villagers never went to any school so they looked at the educated people with some degree of suspicion because they considered the educated people a threat to their belief and traditional system of blind belief and in the continuation of fundamentalism in their practices like the hated dowry system. They were also thoroughly superstitious to boot.

The farmers are poor to begin with and barely make a living in agriculture so they raise some cows, buffaloes and chicken or ducks. They also do fish farming by raising some fish in their ponds in their backyard and they grow some vegetables around their huts. The grass roof mud houses they live in cannot be glorified as houses as you and I know but such is the life in villages just 40 kms from a major city.

Still the village had its charm. It was placid and very quiet except when women fought with their neighbors in very high pitch voices over some petty issues now and then. The pathways were overgrown with weeds on both sides so there was nothing neat and clean about it especially when it rained meaning most of the time making the narrow pathways muddy. I was very young then so I ignored the mud, the mosquitoes and the misery the people there lived in day in and day out.

Nothing exciting happened in the village except the quarrelling women now and then so it was perhaps their way of creating some excitement in their humdrum life.

This changed when they received the word that a party of few men and women was coming their way to inspect and interview a possible female for the purpose of marriage. Naturally I was curious to know what was going to happen next but I did not have to wait long.

In fact the women had got the wind of it a few days earlier so they started to prepare the poor girl for the interview in earnest and rubbed and scrubbed the girl until she cried uncle. After all she had to be very presentable to the party in every possible way so that a favorable impression could be made on the visitors.

Women prepared food and drinks in advance, dressed up the poor girl in fine sari after combing her hair a hundred times and with some borrowed jewelries and then waited with bated breath for the arrival of the guests. They even polished the jewelry with tamarind to make it shine. In short they tried to put up a good show. The fact that the girl was not pretty and quite dark skinned did not help much so they had to make up for it somehow. People say that food is one way to win the heart of strangers so the women prepared lots of food.

Now let me tell you about the party that soon arrived. They represented the man who was to marry so it became incumbent on them to select the best possible candidate hence the interview. They were from another village probably just like this one without paved road and with no water or electricity so they did not mind the dirt, the mud and the village so after the refreshment and drinks they sat down seriously now to look at the girl and start the interview process.

At this time the girl was brought in decked in her fineries after a behind the scene thorough coaching by women on how to sit, how to answer questions and how to behave etc. because they had all gone through the same process when they were interviewed for their marriage.

The girl had only 4th grade level education but that was not important to the visitors. If truth be known, they were not very educated either and some of them probably were illiterate to boot but they were some of the most unpolished people I had ever seen. Their language was crude and often vulgar but I observed the women more vulgar and cruder during the interview.

They started by asking her if she knew how to read and write, how old she was, what culinary skills she had acquired and what home making skills she had  while looking at her critically. They approved of her big boobs and wide hips that indicated that she will bear children easily and perhaps many. They even inspected her teeth just like the farmers who inspect the udder and the teeth of a cow before purchasing it so in their mind a woman was only good for breeding and cooking or that is the impression I got watching them. I felt sorry for the girl when they even asked her to walk back and forth to make sure that she did not have defective legs.

The prospective groom was not present so a black and white photo of the groom was presented to the host. It was a photo of an ugly man who was very dark just like the girl. He made a meagre living by collecting tickets from the cinema goers somewhere so he did not need an education for it.

So it turned out that it was going to be a marriage made in heaven. The observers said that the groom was just like the bride who did not have high hopes. She must have felt lucky that she was getting married at all.

Once the prospective bride is found to be suitable, the serious discussion on how much dowry the girl must bring to her marriage begins and can be often acrimonious. Notice that I said how much dowry the girl must bring to her marriage and not how much the groom should bring because the groom here gets a free ride so it is the parents and the relatives of the girl who must find the sum demanded by the relatives of the groom. In this case I do not know what transpired between the two parties and how much dowry and other gifts were agreed upon but I do know that the poor girl got married to the ticket checker and was happily producing kids for him like a breeding machine and enjoying it.

In India the females of marriageable age depend on their relatives to find a suitable groom for them because they are not allowed to have a boyfriend. The rural folks are traditional to say the least but this is also true in cities where girls go to school and even college. In the deeply traditional society of India the boys and girls are strongly discouraged to have girlfriend boyfriend relationships because parents worry about what may happen if the young people mix freely leading to who knows what! ( Please read my bog on Arranged marriage system here )

Now I will come to the part that is the subject of this blog called the Curse of dowry. I had to prepare you for this part as a background information to understand why the dowry system is still practiced in India and in many other countries.

In many countries in the Middle East, a Bedouin may offer 6 camels and a few goats to seal a deal of marriage especially if the woman is good looking and of fair skin. They would not offer even two goats for an ugly and dark skinned woman no matter how big her boobs and hips are but there the men pay for the dowry and not the women. India is different where men still demand dowry without an iota of shame.

Ask anyone who had to pay the dowry to get his daughter married and he will tell you how he had to beg, borrow or steal the money and humiliate himself to get his daughter married. It is not unheard of that people sell their land and their animals to pay for the marriage or borrow from the loan sharks the money with high interest rate that drive them further into their debt trap and poverty. There is no escape if you have a daughter who must get married and pity if you have more than one daughter. Such couples live their life in tension and deep worries thinking all the time about the financial burden that their tradition forces on them.

One thing to know about Indian marriage is that there is no need for love between a man and a woman in order to get married. Those who marry because of love are called with deprecating names by the traditionalists who call such marriage as love marriage that are called anti-social  and going against their cherished traditions.

If you read the matrimonial columns of any newspaper in India, you will find numerous ads like “ Groom needed for a  wheat complexioned college educated girl who has a steady job” The wheat complexion and the lure of steady job is the clincher so some greedy men or their relatives start seeing Rupee bills showering on them.

This greed for money drives them crazy if the girl has a Green Card in the US or Australia that means only one thing to the man. He will get a visa easily and possibly a job there so the physical attraction or the lack of it of the girl at this point becomes irrelevant to him.

Now I have often wondered about this penchant for the wheat complexion in girls because as an agronomist I know that there are some varieties of wheat that are quite reddish or brown so what they really mean by wheat complexion? Probably they mean fair skin because they are obsessed with the white or fair skin color in women but never in men. The man can be as black as a water buffalo called carabao in some countries or as ugly as a camel with gingivitis but he is still in the market so it seems quite unfair to make such demands on women like that poor girl in the village I wrote about earlier.

Now I will try to explain the rationale behind this tradition of arranged marriage and the dowry the woman must bring to her marriage. Why in this age of education for all and the computer, the idea of the arranged marriage system still persists? Now boys and girls go to college together and get to know each other. They work together in offices or in factories. They join the armed services and serve the country together. They work in the hospitals as doctors and nurses or as medical technicians. Now women work along with men in nearly all fields you and I can think of because there is no gender based discrimination in the job market. Women in India work in the construction sites as laborers that you will not find elsewhere.

Girls in rural and urban areas go to school because free education is available to them up to high school and many incentives for them to go to college later. It has opened up numerous opportunities especially for women who can develop their own career in any field they choose. They are no longer home bound waiting to get married to a ticket checker in a cinema hall somewhere so the question is – why the system of arranged marriage persists and why the families of the groom still demand dowry?  

It is difficult for me to give you an answer to this question except the fact that India is still a patriarchal country where boys are valued more than girls in the tradition bound societies although this is slowly changing with the spread of education among women. The system favors boys over the girls and gives them the right to choose their life partners but not the girls.

The dowry demanded by the groom or his family bolsters his rights further and puts the expenses on the girl’s family to show that it is a male dominated society where women must play a secondary role.

But women now are far more educated than their mothers and aunts so have started to assert their right to choose their life partners. They find someone who is educated like them and believes in modern India where there are many opportunities of finding good jobs. The prospect of finding good jobs makes them independent from their parents unlike the poor uneducated ugly girl in the village.

So I think that the spread of education among men and women has brought equality to women and the freedom to make their own decisions about marriage. I know of a family where they had three daughters and no son but all three daughters were very smart and became MD doctors and married their co doctors. I liked the youngest whom I knew as a baby. She got married with no dowry and at a minimal cost that she shared with her husband that made her parents so proud.

The consequences of dowry system:

Source : Google photo

The blog will not be complete unless I also mention the evil consequences of the dowry system. In 2012, 8,233 dowry death cases were reported across India. This means a bride was burned every 90 minutes, or dowry issues cause 1.4 deaths per year per 100,000 women in India. According to a 1996 report by Indian police, every year it receives over 2,500 reports of bride-burning. This figure is perhaps under reported.

According to Pakistan’s News International, an English-language newspaper, the country has the highest reported number of dowry death rates per 100,000 women in the world, with an estimated 2,000 cases reported each year.

The demand for more money, more gifts and more favors does not stop but continues long after the marriage so it puts tremendous pressure on the family of the girl to come up with more money and gifts for the groom. It is also reported that the cause of domestic violence in India and Pakistan is related to insufficient dowry brought in by the woman or her family that in many cases results in tragic consequences like death. A tortured woman often ends her life to escape the violence she is subjected to.

I know of a case where a very intelligent girl who was married to a rascal fled one day to seek shelter with her parents. She finally got a divorce and married a nice person who brought her to England. It made me happy to know that she was happy and found a new life somewhere else.

I have always disliked the idea that a woman must bring dowry to a marriage because the system of dowry makes her buy her husband. When a marriage ends up on the rocks, she can take revenge on the two timing and abusive husband by saying that she paid for him and fed his greed for money because he was not man enough to stand up and marry for her qualities.

There are cases where a groom or his family makes new demands on the day of the marriage in front of the guests for more money and gifts and threatens to walk away if their demands are not met. There was a brave girl who could no longer tolerate the humiliation suffered by her parents so she angrily tore up the marriage contract that she was to sign and asked the offending party to leave. She made the news headline but how many girls are so brave? How many men come forward and say that the dowry system is inhuman and morally wrong?

When men and women stand up for their right to choose their life partners, they will slowly bring about changes in their patriarchal communities that still favor arranged marriage and the dowry system. Parents of such children will be proud of them because such children when grown up will lift the heavy burden of dowry from the frail shoulders of their parents and throw it in the dust bin of history.

Until then, the poor girls have to tolerate the insult of interviewers who check their teeth and boobs to decide if they are a marriage material.

Source : Google photo

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