The solemnisation of a marriage is an important social function all over the world. In Indian society, it has more significance because, as stated elsewhere, it creates a bond not only between two individuals but also between two families. Among almost all the patrilineal communities in India, the transfer of the bride to the groom’s family is accompanied by dowry system in India . Among certain communities, the dowry is given as a bride-price to the girl’s parents. This bride price is paid in cash or kind depending on the region and the tribe. This practice was also prevalent among certain lower castes, but they are now slowly converting bride price for dowry.
The sex ratio in a community has an important bearing on the institution of dowry system in India especially where the marriage is controlled by strict rules of endogamy and exogamy. Besides bride price, another custom that is disappearing is that of child marriage because of the efforts of social reformers and legislative measures. Unfortunately, the evil of dowry system in India remains.
The prevalence of dowry and bride price must be considered as they reflect on the status of women. The idea behind the payment of a bride price is based on the consideration for the loss of a productive worker in the girl’s family to the boy’s family. Among communities where the custom of bride price prevails, the girl enjoys a good status, as she involves no burden to her parents. However, girls for whom a bride price is paid are always conscious that, in their husbands’ families, they are considered as having been bought. Among some tribes and poorer sections of society, the bride price took a heavy toll on the parents of the boy and in some cases, the debt incurred by the parents had to be paid off in life-long servitude to landowners and rich castes. Thus, the custom of bride price is fundamentally based on the concept of women being property, and their exchange involves payment. To end this indignity to women in India, a provision was made in the, 1961, against the payment of bride price.
The term ‘dowry’ signifies a payment (in cash or in kind) made to the son-in-law or to his parents. Dowry also includes enormous wasteful expenses incurred on entertaining the bridegroom’s marriage party. Dowry giving families are obliged to continue giving gifts on festive and ceremonial occasions and on childbirth, marriage, etc. This practice goes on for a few years and is usually considered to cover inadequate dowry at the time of marriage.
Dowry system in India is linked with many social and cultural elements that justify and perpetuate the practice.
Among Hindus and Muslims, the notion of dowry is the premortem realisation of the daughter’s right of inheritance to parental property, as she has to leave her natal family to join that of her husband’s.
As stated earlier, parents gave huge dowries on the marriage of girls to ensure the economic security of the couple. In the course of time, this developed into a major consideration and virtually assumed the form of the price of the bridegroom. Because of the prevalence of endogamous marriages in Hindu society, this resulted in a kind of competition and the boy’s parents began demanding dowry system in India based on their social and economic status. This tradition resulted in much social malpractice.
Among the various movements of social reform initiated during the last century, the one for eradicating dowry has been in the forefront. Almost all reformers and thinkers, as well as social organisations, have raised their voice against it. During the post-independence period, this reform campaign gained momentum and even legislative measures were taken imposing limits on the amount of dowry and imposing fine and imprisonment for their violation. However, the custom of dowry still holds strongly in Indian society with people evolving new methods of evading legal prohibition and social disapproval. Dowry has become the main item of discussion in the negotiations for marriage. Before legal restrictions were put in place, the dowry was openly exhibited as it was felt that the higher the dowry the higher the status of the contracting families.
The failure of social and legal sanctions against dowry system in India calls for an analysis as to whether there are defects in the legal provisions or the tradition is so deep-rooted that it calls for a more radical approach. To do this, we must consider what dowry system in India consists of, why it is asked for and why it is paid. In common parlance, dowry is that amount of money or goods that is given by the bride’s parents to the bridegroom’s parents. However, in practice, all that one party receives from the other is termed dowry. Dowry is usually paid by the parents of the girl although, in certain castes and communities, it is the other way around. This has been discussed earlier. The background and circumstances on which dowry is based can be briefly stated as under.
Historically, the most important psychological reason for the payment of dowry is the natural desire of every parent to ensure that his daughter is not considered a slave in the family that she marries into. As a token of affection and support, they send presents in the form of money or goods to convey that the bride is not helpless but the beloved daughter of a prosperous family and should be treated accordingly. In the course of time, this practice degenerated into the present evil tradition of dowry system in India.
In earlier times, women and property were treated at par. Apart from certain ruling classes, the lot of women in India among the masses was extremely hard and their humiliation was considered normal. This motivated parents of girls to ensure decent treatment to their daughters in their husband’s house by giving dowry at the time of marriage and sending presents to the husband’s family throughout her life. To some extent, this practice continues in Hindu society.
Thus, dowry or gifts to the husband’s family were regarded as the cost of ensuring that the girl was properly treated. In certain forms of marriage, there was an explicit condition that in case of ill-treatment of the bride or divorce, the dowry was to be restored to the bride or her parents. The ‘mehr’ ceremony among Muslims whereby each Muslim husband assumes the responsibility of paying an amount of money to the wife in the case of divorce testifies to this.
The practice of dowry system in India has now assumed another aspect. Today, dowry system in India is not merely a guarantee against possible ill-treatment of the bride but is tantamount to purchasing certain comforts and economic security for it. Among the higher and upper middle classes, women in India are economically dependent on their husbands. In other words, they are considered to be an economic burden on their husbands and to alleviate this burden the bride’s parents have to give a dowry consistent with the financial standing or potential of the bridegroom and his family.
Dowry can be termed as the price paid to purchase comfort and luxuries for the bride. It is significant that the practice of dowry system in India is more prevalent among the upper and higher middle classes, whereas in the lower classes it is not significant because, among them, women in India participate equally in productive labour and other activities and, thus, are not a burden on their husbands. On the contrary, the bride adds to the income of the family.
The practice of dowry system in India cannot be eradicated by legal and social sanctions, as they do not touch even the fringe of the problem. During the last quarter of a century, dowry has assumed another aspect. Now the amount is influenced by the educational qualifications or economic standing of the bridegroom and is decided before giving consent to the alliance.
Negotiations for dowry are commercial transactions with more or less well-defined slabs for different professions among different caste groups, for example, men in higher administrative, engineering and medical services receive the highest dowries. Thus, the tradition of giving gifts to the bride when she went to her husband’s home assumed the form of a commercial transaction. The justification for dowry usually presented by parents of the boys are:
- They have spent huge amounts on their son’s education which they have to recover on the occasion of his marriage.
- They have to give dowry for their daughter’s marriage, which means they have to receive the dowry for the son’s marriage.
It is clear from this that the problem of dowry system in India is too complicated a social problem and the expansion of education has failed to liberate the minds of the people from the influence of this tradition. On the contrary, today the highly educated boys with lucrative incomes expect a much higher dowry. The girl’s parents, wishing their daughter to join a prosperous family, have no option but to pay the dowry demanded of them. Education among girls has also proved to be of little help in solving this problem, as they aspire to marry men who are more highly educated than they are and which requires payment of higher dowry.
Material considerations, that is, financial position and professional opportunities have always been an important criterion for deciding the marriage, even in the West where marriage is said to be mainly based on mutual attraction. What is deplorable is not the practice of dowry system in India itself but the fact that it is compulsive.
Section 3 of the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 prescribes a penalty for giving or taking a dowry with a fine of up to Rs. 5,000 and/or imprisonment up to six months. However, the Act has failed to curb this practice and, in spite of the huge growth of this evil custom, there are very few cases reported under this Act. A well-phased programme to transform the standard of values and behaviour and radical reform at the attitudinal level are required to re-establish the dignity of women in India. This can best be done by arousing social consciousness in this regard.
Dowry system in the West
Before the industrialisation of the West, when land was the only potential source of income, parents exercised great influence on their children’s choice of a spouse through their control over the inheritance. The rural youth had to obtain their parents’ permission for marriage unless they were sure of acquiring land through their own effort. The dowry system was, therefore, prevalent in a major part of Europe and girls had little scope to marry according to their own choice. A survey conducted in 1952 revealed that 65 per cent of German women contacted in that sample said they had brought a dowry with them.
Till quite recently, the dowry was prevalent in southern Italy. Banfield comments, ”without a dowry, a Montenegro girl cannot make a satisfactory marriage.” (Edward C. Banfield. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1958).
In a survey in Belgium, the answer to the question: “Do young people take account of the material difficulties that they would encounter after marriage?” supported the fact of parental control concerning the choice of a spouse. Thirty-nine percent agreed that young people did not pay attention to the material consideration while the remaining 61 percent replied that young people gave weight to it even if the parents did not intervene in the choice of a spouse. In the early stage of a courtship, parents sometimes did not intervene simply because they did not know what was going on.
The change in the custom of dowry in the West can be attributed to many factors. The land is no more the primary source of wealth and parents have less control over the occupations of their sons and daughters. The growing tendency among young people to decide for them selves and the relative instability of the marriage which often ends in divorce, force parents not to make substantial expenditure on the marriage of their children.
In this connection, Shelsky commented:
Formerly, one could not marry except on the condition that he had already a good situation (an essential factor for security) while now one marries in order to construct an existence together, to create a certain security
(La Sociologie Compare e de la Famille Contempraine, Paris Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, 1955).
Dowry has disappeared from Europe, except among certain higher social strata where, strictly speaking, it is not dowry. Similarly, Indian society has been undergoing a change, especially after independence, and new values and standards of behaviour are developing. This is the only silver lining to the cloud of dowry that covers Indian society. Also increasing male-female promiscuity in colleges and professions and court marriages when parents object to their choice, may contribute to the elimination of dowry system in India.