Neeti's Dowry Death

Neeti’s Dowry Death. Analyse

Loyalty and power

As far as the stereotype goes, a persecuted wife’s mother-in-law is usually at the heart of the matter. The narrative goes like this: the mother-in-law, who held sway over the household until her daughter-in-law barged in and disrupted her special relationship with her son, resents the daughter-in-law. This is compounded by the mother-in-law’s own experience, as she had been exposed to a similar dynamic herself when she had been a daughter-in-law. She knows full well that it took her time and great suffering before she earned the right to occupy a position of power in the household herself. Now, she feels it is her right to assert her position.

On one hand, this is an issue of jealousy. On the other, it is also about the husbands’ loyalty. Our fieldwork showed that many men have to grapple with the quest ion of whether their primary allegiance is to their mothers or to their wives.

In keeping with such stereotypes, we found ample evidence of daughters-in-law and their families squarely blaming mothers-in-law for playing a huge part in breaking up their marriages, abetting suicides or actually committing the murders of their daughters-in-law. Even families who have not gone through fuch extreme events talk of the kind of rivalry between these two women that has become notorious.

The regularity of such claims led us to think more deeply about the dynamics of these relationships until we saw a pattern emerge. What was being given the label of ‘dowry-related’ was not always as simple as a financial demand from the groom’s side. Such demands do not appear to be the sole factor that always leads

to deaths of young brides, nor the one thing that causes most divorces. There is more to the ‘dowry issue’ than meets the eye. Ultimately, we now propose that much of it actually relates more to matters of power and loyalty.

In a joint family, predominant even today in India, a shift of the power equation in the household is not something easily handled by a mother-in-law has to make room for her daughter-in-law. In this context, one has to consider where it is that women attain their status from. In the Indian family setting, a girl is often perceived as a virtual nobody until she gets married. Marriage offers her social status and a certain level of respect. Within her ne^ household, though, she may enter at the bottom of the family hierarchy and remain there only until she gives birth to a child, preferably (for many) a boy. Being a mother is of great importance, and failing to bear a child can bring shame to a woman within the family and social ridicule outside it.

If she succeeds, this woman may achieve a sense of power over her children and her household. But this does not last for long, as when these children eventually get married, they achieve their own status and power. Their loyalties may also shift, at least to some extent, to their spouses. This is especially the case foi the mother of a boy, who might find it difficult to hand over the control of her son—who she may adore absolutely for doing so much for her position—to her daughter-in-law. Many such women prove unwilling to respect these changes in their relationships and allow mental as well as physical room for their daughters-in-law.

Such women may blame the new arrivals to the household for their loss in status and diminished emotional connectivity, rather than their own sons. They still seek the loyalty of their sons, and the best way to retain this seems to be to keep them appeased, perhaps even turning them against their wives. Daughters-in-law, thus, end up being treated badly.

Neeti suffered at her mother-in-law’s hands through verbal taunts and ridicule, and finally through an allegation of infidelity which she impressed upon her son. The first instance of verbal cruelty came when Neeti’s mother-in-law was jealous of the affection her son was lavishing on his wife. Buying her ice creams and cold drinks—considered items of luxury at their level of society—was condemned as a waste of money. She forbade her daughter-in-law from going out with her husband, as she saw this as time the couple nurtured their bond together at the expense of her bond with her son. Clearly, she felt threatened.

It is significant that Neeti’s mother-in-law instructed her not to go out with her husband, but did not directly approach her son about this. She also considered the girl guilty of ‘robbing’ her son from her. In many cases, these

In a joint family, predominant even today in India, a shift of the power equation in the household is not something easily handled by a mother-in-law, who has to make room for her daughter-in-law. In this context, one has to consider where it is that women attain their status from. In the Indian family setting, a girl is often perceived as a virtual nobody until she gets married. Marriage offers her social status and a certain level of respect. Within her new household, though, she may enter at the bottom of the family hierar remain there only until she gives birth to a child, preferably (for many) at Being a mother is of great importance, and failing to bear a chil shame to a woman within the family and social ridicule outside it

If she succeeds, this woman may achieve a sense of power over her cr and her household. But this does not last for long, as when these children e tually get married, they achieve their own status and power. 1 also shift, at least to some extent, to their spouses. This is especially the case for the mother of a boy, who might find it difficult to hand over the control of hei son—who she may adore absolutely for doing so much for her position-her daughter-in-law. Many such women prove unwilling to respect these changes in their relationships and allow mental as well as physical room for their daughters-in-law.

Such women may blame the new arrivals to the household in status and diminished emotional connectivity, rather than their own sons. They still seek the loyalty of their sons, and the best way to retain this seems to be to keep them appeased, perhaps even turning them against their wives. Daughters-in-law, thus, end up being treated badly.

Neeti suffered at her mother-in-law’s hands through verbal taunts and ridicule, and finally through an allegation of infidelity which she impressed upon her son. The first instance of verbal cruelty came when Neeti’s mother-in-law was jealous of the affection her son was lavishing on his wife. Buying her ice creams and cold drinks—considered items of luxury at their level of society—was condemned as a waste of money. She forbade her daughter-in-law from going out with her husband, as she saw this as time the couple nurtured their bond together at the expense of her bond with her son. Clearly, she felt threatened.

It is significant that Neeti’s mother-in-law

It is significant that Neeti’s mother-in-law instructed her not to go out with her husband, but did not directly approach her son about this. She also considered the girl guilty of ‘robbing’ her son from her. In many cases, these loyalty and jealousy dynamics, and the harassment associated with them, later get given the label of a ‘dowry matter’ in police stations and lawyers’ offices, even though no attempt at extortion may have been made.

There is one more piece of context to the loyalty problems in Neeti’s story: that is, the issue of sexual fidelity, implying questions of loyalty between hus­band and wife. Neeti suspected her husband of being sexually disloyal to her but she resigned herself to this situation in fear of a fresh onslaught of emotional and physical violence from her marital family.

In contrast, her husband expected absolute loyalty from his wife. When he began to doubt he had it, he too began to abuse her. It is clear that his mother told him a lot of things that made him question Neeti. It seems she was trying to retain constant control over both her son and daughter-in-law. When she found herself winning the ‘loyalty war’, she appeared to be content; when she seemed to be losing, this contentment turned to rage against her daughter-in-law.

Divorce

Divorce is still highly unacceptable in many parts of Indian society. It is still a matter of shame to a lot of people. Those who have this opinion believe that when no longer married, a woman is left with little by way of identity, status or power. In fact, many would grant divorced women a status even lower than a widow’s.

Neeti’s own response to the idea of divorce was a mixture of fear and shame. She believed that if she were to be divorced, she would meet with social disapproval and scorn. She was openly threatened with divorce by her in-laws, and this terrified her. She showed she was entirely willing, if need be, to continue living with an abusive husband who was probably being unfaithful to her. She could not imagine being able to bear a life outside the institution of marriage.

Given Neeti’s family’s lower socioeconomic status, it is understandable that she perceived that she would be a financial burden on her parents in the event of a divorce. As a girl, her socialisation probably weighed quite heavily on her, inculcating the roles of an ideal wife into her psyche. For this reason, we can speculate that she probably did not consider that she could have utilised her own faculties—in part bestowed on her by her education—to work and support herself.

Neeti was also acutely aware of her responsibility for her son. This may have been one more reason for her to be hesitant to consider divorce, as she would not have wanted to leave her boy behind, nor would she have felt confident of being able to support him.

Her religious background—which preached that marriage is a relationship that should last seven births—also became an important factor. In contrast to this ideal of an enduring union, divorce is unnerving in its finality. It brings to a complete end all hopes of problems being resolved and a resulting happy marriage. For this reason and all the others, it is no wonder that divorce is still seldom perceived as a way out of marital troubles. In the minds of many—to use a popular cliche—it is tantamount to jumping out of the frying pan, dir­ectly into the fire.

Law and representations of truth

How law is understood depends largely on the information a person has gathered about it from personal experience. Neeti’s family knew virtually nothing of the law when they first approached the police. Consequently, they had no idea what statutes to call upon when they lodged their FIR.

During this study, we never tried to ascertain the final truth in any given case and decide who should be found guilty and who should be acquitted. We only sought to question and probe in such ways that we could scratch beneath the surface, looking for the story behind the story.

In this case, it is safe to say that the family never specifically asked for a dowry-related complaint to be lodged. Yet the mention of dowry demands appears within the text of the FIR, enough for this case to be considered a ‘dowry case’. The assumption, suddenly, was that dowry was at the heart of the matter. How did this situation arise?

Many practitioners (lawyers, police, NGO workers, and so on.), as well as members of regular society have come to view the anti-dowry laws as the only laws that have any teeth when it comes to dealing with the matter of an abused or a dead wife. According to the law, if a complaint is lodged under these pro­visions, those who are accused should be immediately arrested. Dowry death is a non-bailable offence. The onus to prove innocence lies on the alleged perpetrator(s).

These facts have become popular knowledge and thus women’s families, perhaps acting on legal advice, often build and emphasise a dowry angle in the belief that they will have a better hope of achieving what they feel to be ‘justice’.

Given a widespread lack of confidence in the country’s criminal justice system, this might otherwise seem quite improbable.

Because Neeti’s family knew so little about the law, and we know they did not ask specifically for a dowry case to be lodged in the first place, it seems probable that the police were influential in this. Police officers often encourage the use of these laws in complaints relating to abused and dead wives, without fully understanding how doing so could affect the case in question. In Neeti’s matter, language difficulties between the complainants and the police probably led to miscommunication. But as various aspects of it ostensibly fit the basics of what is commonly understood as a ‘dowry case’ (that is, a young woman had died in some sort of burns accident within seven years of her marriage), the police may have found it easy to classify it as such.

There is clearly a need for improved legal awareness, not only among lay people but also critically within the arms of the criminal justice system itself.

Women’s Agency

What ‘agency’ and ’empowerment’ mean to each individual woman and the means in which they are achieved and used (if at all) are worthy of a good deal more discussion than there is space for here. Women’s NGOs and support groups work towards empowering women in several different ways. It may take the form of helping them to understand the law and, by extension, their rights. At other times, it simply involves teaching them how to be assertive. It can even mean helping them take more complete charge of themselves and their lives.

A woman’s journey from being a daughter, sister, wife and mother to being an individual is likely to be filled with enormous challenges. At each stage it may require courage, determination and the building of agency. Neeti showed self-reliance in trying times, whether it was by getting in touch with her natal family or by selling her jewellery so that she would have money to take her child to the hospital.

Neeti’s natal family helped her in her journey towards empowerment by questioning her in-laws about the abuse they meted out to her. On Neeti’s behalf, her family — especially Shilpa — also showed their own agency by taking the matter to the police and eventually to court. But as so often is the case, all this happened only after her death.

Abused women often find means of helping themselves only when they realise that if they do not take action, there is no one else out there who can help them instead. One of the biggest challenges on the road towards empower­ment is learning to make one’s own decisions. Neeti showed on many occasions that she had the ability to take important decisions for herself, whether it was choosing her marriage partner or returning to her parents’ home when things became unbearable in her marital home.

If she had stuck to the latter of these decisions even in the face of her husband’s pleas that he was a changed man, perhaps she would still be alive today.

Neeti’s Dowry Death. Analyse
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