Early in the course of our interviews, we realised that the definition and popular understandings of dowry were things we needed to try to understand in a fuller, more comprehensive manner. On the whole, complainants and defendants seemed to hold two rather conflicting understandings of what has come to be seen as a ‘social evil’. This made the problems they were facing much more complex.
This mismatch in understandings of ‘dowry’ and the laws related to it have also allowed these laws to be misused and abused. People fit ideas that suit their own purposes into the meaning of ‘dowry.’ Even members of the police and others across the criminal justice system have failed to come to a consensus on what exactly dowry is, and what is problematic about it.
In many cases, we found that articles given from the girl’s side to the boy’s in connection with marriage are simply considered gifts until a problem arises between the couple or the related families. When the matter reaches the police station, these same gifts somehow get transformed into ‘dowry.’ Many respondents told us that they did not mind ‘giving,’ but that they would be offended if the same was asked for or ‘demanded.’ It is at this point that they use the term, ‘dowry.’
Shalini, for instance, states very clearly that there had been no open demand for money from the groom’s family—had there been any such demand, her parents would have never agreed to the match. According to her, her father continued to deposit money in their joint account as he wanted to see his daughter living comfortably. At the same time, Shalini says that her in-laws knew that her father would provide her with finance. There was, in fact, an unspoken expectation of this. She insists that ‘it was always about money’ for her in-laws. Money, according to her, was the only gain they hoped to make out of the match.
We elaborated on this in the introductory chapter, but it is essential for us to understand how ‘gifts’ may be manipulated into ‘dowry’ in the narrative, once problems emerge and the process of marital breakdown accelerates.
Identity, roles and gender construction of women
Under patriarchal conditions, at least according to theory, men draw their social roles from their achieved status in society. This might come from their occupation and other things they are seen to do. Women’s roles, on the other hand, are understood to be derived from their ascribed status of being daughters, wives and mothers. Women’s very identities are framed from their lived relationships with men. They are born as daughters, grow up to be sisters, get married to become wives, graduate to become mothers as they bear children, then mothers-in-law as these children come of age and themselves get married. These identifying relationships also give women their status.
Furthermore, women are also typecast very often as ‘nurturers,’ with the expectation that they should remain confined to the domain of the household. As they move from one identity to the next, their status also rises. Thus, when they eventually become mothers-in-law, they may feel this is the only identity that can grant them some power over other people, specifically other women—their daughters-in-law.
We need to understand these dynamics before beginning to unpack the forces that shaped Shalini’s childhood and socialisation. She was brought up to believe that marriage was compulsory, and that she was only a guest in her natal home, while her marital home would be her true home. While she was not discouraged from studying and from the idea of a career, looking after her husband and bearing children was understood as her main calling.
Shalini stated more than once that despite the problems in her marriage, she never thought of divorce as an option until very late in the day. She was apparently more than willing to go back to her husband, even when she was unwell. While she told us that she saw him as her priority, social pressures to avoid divorce and the socially imposed idea of the ‘ideal family’ appear also to have been strong influences in this. At the same time, she was never allowed to take decisions for herself. Indeed, there were always other people in her life that seemed to think they knew what was best and felt that acting on this was their responsibility.
Even today, Shalini has not achieved full control over her own life, or that of her son. But she has begun to show encouraging signs of getting there. The situation she got into was not entirely her own fault. She was required to adopt an identity and perform roles based on certain stereotypes of her gender that remain predominant. Some might therefore say that social norms are largely to blame for her condition. In spite of these norms, however, increasing numbers of women are harnessing their own energy to break free from their shackles, showing that it is possible to overcome social conditioning.
Having been through so many trials, Shalini is now trying to adopt a new role identity by looking for a job to support herself and her son. She has even changed her physical appearance to try and fit into the modernising urban world around her. A tiny bit of her is confident that she will eventually get justice in court. But to some extent she is still battling between choosing the role of the modern, self-sufficient young woman who looks out for herself, and that of the ‘ideal’ Indian woman whose place is understood to be beside her husband. It will take her—and women like her—some time and effort to sort out this role confusion. But they do have a choice, at least to some extent, about which path they would like to follow. Each path has its own consequences.
Shalini’s story reveals a great deal about the expectations a woman might have of- herself, of marriage and of her life partner. At the same time, there are other people who also expect things of her: her husband, her natal family, her in-laws and even her wider community and society. When there is a mismatch in these expectations between different people, things can sometimes go very wrong.
As a teenager, Shalini expected marriage to be a bed of roses. She fell in love with a man she had never seen and gave everything she had to him, expecting him to love her just as much in return. She also had very high expectations of herself. She wanted to fulfil her ‘ideal’ role: that of the perfect wife and daughter-in-law. She put her husband before herself, giving into his authority. In choosing to live her life completely on her husband and in-laws’ terms, Shalini made a huge mistake. Two years later, when she tried to take control of her life back, it put her marriage in jeopardy.
Shalini’s husband and in-laws expected her not to challenge their authority at any cost. Her husband also expected her to be completely faithful to him, and his suspicion of her infidelity, even though it was not based on any proof, became a source of further friction between them. This brings us back to the patriarchal society’s norms for women. Where husbands assume positions of power and control over their wives, mere suspicion that they are breaking these rules—with infidelity being the worst transgression—can be enough to convince them to turn fiercely against their partners.
Shalini’s in-laws and husband also had financial expectations of her parents. The fulfilment of these expectations might have given her some stability in her life, but this was only ever short-lived. What caused major problems was the fact that their control over money intended for her was absolute—it could not be questioned. Having handed over financial control to her husband and his family, Shalini suffered painful consequences of not being financially independent.
Mismatches of expectations from both sides were evident even as early as the wedding ceremony, and these always led to unpleasantness and problems. Not all such problems were related to money, as might be expected in a classic ‘dowry case.’ Rather, they stemmed from a power struggle in which the groom’s side expected the bride’s side to do all that they said, confirming the patriarchal notion of the male side’s superiority.
Many aspects of the cases narrated in this book are representative of the wider picture that we observed during fieldwork. We found issues around loyalty leading to problems between two families in more cases than anything else. In Shalini’s case, the first problem that arose was one of financial loyalty, linked to her in-laws’ expectation that money must continually flow from her father into a joint bank account. Because her husband had access to this account, he then had a free hand in using the money in it. As a loyal wife, Shalini was not expected to question how he did this.
While this expectation of the bride’s parents’ financial loyalty to her and her husband is not the same as dowry harassment, pressure and control tactics were certainly present. Indeed, we saw Shalini’s in-laws mistreating her, taking away her freedom to even speak with her husband just a few days after her marriage. She believes that this was done solely to pressure her parents to send money. Her in-laws and husband expected her to be loyal to them, meaning that she should never raise the issue of control of the purse strings. In this way, perhaps, they also expected her to accept their domination.
When Shalini broke her silence and retracted her loyalty, her husband began an onslaught of mental, emotional and even physical cruelty. More than once, when the two of them argued over various issues, he chose to bring her parents into things, verbally disrespecting them and calling them names. When Shalini fought hack, standing up for her parents, her husband stepped up his abuse. The bottom line was that he expected her loyalty, both emotionally and financially, towards him and not them.
Loyalty issues again came under the spotlight on more than one level when Shalini’s fidelity was questioned. It was Shalini’s husband’s loyalty towards his mother that enabled this woman to plant a seed of doubt in his mind about Shalini’s loyalty, in turn, to him. This was one of the tactics the mother-in-law used to pull her son back from his wife.
Meanwhile, by abusing and humiliating her parents, Shalini believes that her husband purposefully provoked her into being emotionally disloyal to him so that he could use this as a rationale for punishing her. The question is, was this done in the hope of gaining more financially, the expectation being that her father would pay more into the joint account as an incentive for him to moderate his behaviour, or was it done—consciously or otherwise—to provoke her to leave him? Either way, the dispute here was clearly over loyalty, and not dowry.
Regardless of all the abuse that Shalini has faced, her parents, in turn, have always expected her to show them her loyalty and respect by also respecting their wishes. This entails remaining committed to the institution of marriage and upholding social norms. Even today, they want her to return to her husband and accept a life by his side. The financial burden of supporting her—which they do whether she is with them or her husband—does not seem as severe to them as the social burden of having a divorced daughter at home.
Maybe more women would opt for divorce if they could assure themselves of financial security. In this case, Shalini thought she could fall back on her parents for support, but they have proven unwilling to assure her of this over a protracted period of time. The only reason she is even thinking about the possibility of going back to her husband today, after five years of separation and two court cases, is because—while still unemployed—she perceives that it is the only way she can ensure financial stability for herself and her son. The fact that it would make her parents and society happy is only a side benefit.
One of the reasons for such low divorce rates in India, possibly also explaining why there are such high unnatural death (murder/suicide) rates, stems from women’s perceived financial insecurity. In addition to the emotional trauma, the social ridicule and the burdens of being a single parent, this economic factor plays a crucial role in stopping women from leaving abusive marriages.
Shalini’s journey has been filled with instances of empowerment, of evolving understandings of her roles and identity. At times, she has had conflicting identities. She was a shy, withdrawn child with a few friends. On the one hand, all she hoped for was a happy marriage, a home and a child, on the other, she was known to express a desire to build a strong career—to become an accomplished dancer or to study towards being an architect.
Life (or, perhaps one should say, Shalini’s parents) had other plans for her and she got married young. At the start of her marriage, she handed over control of her life and destiny to her husband and in-laws. But some time after realising that something unhealthy was happening, she chose to start questioning her husband.
Shalini admits to long having been at the mercy of her husband in many ways. She would accept anything that he and her in-laws laid down as rules for her to follow. It would have taken a lot of courage for her to then stand up for herself and her rights, and also for her parents. Eventually, she chose to seek help from an outside organisation, and called a helpline attached to a counselling centre that said it could help her deal with her marital problems.
Shalini talks of how, at this point, her husband was stunned that she had taken such a bold step. Evidently, it was something he had never expected her to do. It was seen by her in-laws as her ‘getting out of hand.’ They and her husband tried to control her and ‘put her in her place’ (make her submit) through mental and even physical violence. Yet Shalini battled on, while also trying to make her marriage work. Under the circumstances, this shows notable bravery on her part.
Eventually, on separating herself from her husband and returning to India, Shalini let her parents take back control of her life. They retained this until the point where she again realised that unless she stood up for her rights and became assertive, she would not get any peace.
Today, even though her parents have different hopes for her, Shalini has chosen her own path and is attempting to live life on her own terms. This is empowerment for her, and it is the main thing that will probably make her a strong woman eventually. She has long understood that her battle will be a long and hard one, but she is willing to keep fighting. The positive attitude and lively nature that she has developed over time are helping her tide over her problems. This is women’s agency at its best.