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Material Marriage: Women’s Struggle in the Dowry System of India
John Bryan O. Jamison
15 March 2013

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Dowry, which is a tradition in India, was meant to protect women but instead it is oppressing

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The simple reason of being a human entitles one for having human rights and these
rights ensure that all human beings should live their life with freedom and dignity (Hortreiter,
2001). In every part of the world, there exists a force that makes humans different from any
other living organism. Humans think, decide, feel, and react to situations that are fitting for
humans. Although, animals can also react or adapt to situations, humans are different in a way
that they do not only act out solely for survival but also for their own pursuit of happiness. A
human-mother can even sacrifice her life for her children while a hungry cat-mother can just
selfishly eat her own infant. Humans have the ability to reason and make a choice unlike
animals that are living with their instincts. Since all humans possess these abilities no matter
what race or gender one may have, all humans are equal. Although, they may have varying
levels of intelligence and skills, they all still have the power to think and decide what is the most
fitting. But the setback is that a situation that is fitting for someone might be the worst scenario
for others; in other words, a benefit of one might be the loss of the other. To avoid this, human
rights are established. An individual should find the most fitting for him but it should not harm
others. This is why human rights are called upon.
But one may think, are human rights universal? Is it really employed to all human
beings? According to Gupta (2003), some cultures value duties more over rights. They would
easily choose to be tortured, either physically or mentally, rather than disobeying the norms of
the society. Such society is India, where women are seen oppressed because of traditions and
culture. This paper will focus about the Dowry system, which is a tradition in India, was meant to
protect women but instead it is oppressing them. An interview conducted by Block and Rao
(2000) is an example of an Indian woman being maltreated by this tradition. Sannamma ang
Raju were married for just two years, but she experienced a very oppressing situation.
Sannamma’s family was relatively richer in comparison to Raju’s. A few months after the
marriage, Raju demanded his wife to ask her family for money for the building of a teashop; she
utterly obeyed her husband. After two months, Raju demanded again but this time for a larger
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sum of money; he wants to buy a motorcycle. Her parents do not have that kind of money so
she declined. Afterwards, he abuses her and threatened her parents that if they did not give him
the money, “he could not say what might happen to her”. So Sannamma asked again her
parents for money and this time they obeyed. At this point, Sannamma is very scared and now
lives in fear. Now, her parents send money to him if he asks even though they cannot keep up
with his demand.
A definition of dowry can be derived from the case above - the payment of the bride to
the groom for marriage. It is prevalent in the example that dowry is still seen even after the
marriage. It is asserted in this paper that dowry is seen all over the world with some
modifications because of varying culture. For example, Pakistan is a country that predominantly
comprises of Muslims. It has also dowry policies but the wife can separate from the husband if
her husband abuses her (Farani, 1995). Hinduism plays a large role in the Indian society. As
stated, Dowry exists in many countries but there are varying characteristics embedded in
varying cultures though the act of giving is still present to all. Hinduism contributes and molds
these characteristics of the dowry system in India: its rules and laws are embedded in it.
The purpose of dowry system in India then and now was different. According to Arackel
(1996), the giving of gifts to the bride was initially out of love by her parents; they sympathize for
their child because she will leave everything behind without getting anything since woman
cannot be allowed to inherit any properties. Musa (2012) says that, as a woman, she is
expected to work inside only of the household so the dowry that was received was the capital
for the start of their new family; thus, the dowry is considered very important and it emphasizes
the power and status of the woman within their marriage. But as time goes on, the world is
transforming. The purpose of dowry was changed. Arackel (1996) says that the husband and
his family shamelessly keep on demanding for gifts. According to Musa (2012), there are two
possible reasons for the change. One reason is that the world is ruled by capitalism; the greed
of people is increasing. The dowry system will quench their thirst for money in the shortest time
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possible with only little effort. The more plausible reason is that women are treated as a burden
by her husband and his family. Thus, the dowry will provide the compensatory payment for living
with her husband and her in-laws – it is a tradition in India that the daughter moves from the
home of her father to the home of her husband while the son will stay in their home and bring
his wife there.
As it seen in the first paragraph, the concept about human rights is discussed. We need
these human rights for the people to live in freedom and dignity. But because of dowry, many
human rights of the woman are violated. The violated human rights are the following: freedom to
equality, from torture and degrading treatment, and from life.
It is seen in India that women are not treated as equal as men. One of the main reasons
why women are treated unequal is because women are not given the chance for education. It is
a norm that women are expected to serve the family only (Musa, 2012). Thus, they are not
expected to work outside of their home. Because of this, education is seen not needed for
women. Women are generally discriminated by the society for not attaining any education. Men
treat them as a burden because the tasks of women – usually agricultural activities and chores
– do not require any special skills though they are tedious and consume more time than men
with their jobs (Arenstein, Gloor, Helm & Rhondy). The Man holds the power within the
household for he is educated unlike the female that feels that she is of use only inside their
home, serving food for the family. Dowry as a compensatory payment may have arisen from
these reason. Since men have to work hard to earn their degree and find jobs to earn money,
the dowry will compensate for these hardships that the men went through. If they diminish such
norms and more women will be educated and will be employed in jobs such as the men, the
purpose of dowry as a compensatory payment will diminish.
Because of dowry, Inequality is seen by the inability of the woman to marry someone
that has a higher financial status than her. If one’s daughter will about to marry, the parents will
pick someone whose wealth is relatively equal or lower in comparison with theirs. They are like
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buying the groom which they can afford and the dowry will be the payment. If the man and the
woman pursue to wed because of love but the woman is relatively poorer, she will be
discriminated highly by her in-laws. This is because the dowry given is not enough for their son.
She will be maltreated by the husband’s family if the husband is not there to protect her wife and
of course she will suffer.
The violation of human rights to freedom of torture and degrading treatment of women in
India is seen daily. This violence are domestic violence – universally defined as any incident
that includes abuse, violence, threatening, to another family member including children, spouse,
grandparents, In laws, etc. This violence includes physical violence such as battering, marital
rape, bride burning, and acid throwing; emotional violence such as isolation from friends and
verbal abuse; and economical violence such as little food spare for the wife and almost no
money for personal needs (The Advocates For Human Rights, 2010). According to Musa
(2012), there are three perpetrators of these violences: the woman’s husband and her in laws,
the woman’s family, and the Indian society.
A man in India usually marries a woman whom he is not in love with but instead marries
a woman who can satisfy his hunger for material possession (Musa, 2012). With this case, if the
wife does not meet the dowry demand of her husband, she will be subjected to violence. As
seen in the marriage of Raju and Sannamma, Raju threatens her wife's family in hurting their
daughter for them to give him his demands. This shows that a woman is a bargaining instrument
for the man to get what he wants; he will use violence to get what he wants. According to Bloch
and Rao (2000), the worst thing a husband can do to his wife, aside from murdering, is isolation
of the wife to her family and friends and let support her self without any financial aid while they
are living in the same roof or specifically, physical space. Bloch and Rao (2000) say that a
woman's sense of personal identity is derived from her relationships with her family and friends.
Thus, isolating a woman from them will cause the woman to be depressed to a point of even
wanting to kill herself. The In-laws participation in violence on the women takes place on the
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home. If a man does not want to participate in the murdering of the woman, the In-laws will
brainwash their own son, urging him to participate. Other than brainwashing the husband, the
In-laws can also abuse the woman verbally and treat the woman as a slave of the household,
making her do all the chores in the house. Other reasons of the violence incurred on the wife
include her not boring of a male child and not fulfilling her role as a good wife (Johnson &
Johnson, 2001).
The most saddening part of the woman's life is the betrayal of her natal family, her
parents. The main purpose of the parents to their daughter is to get her to a good marriage and
if they are not successful and their daughter remains unmarried or divorced, it will bring
dishonor and shame to their family (Block and Rao, 2000). That is why in the example above,
Sannamma cannot just leave Raju. Though getting a divorce in India is legal, since Hinduism is
the most predominant religion which does not approve of it, getting a divorce cost the women
and her natal family social issues. Greenhalgh (as quoted in Musa, 2012) states that this status
of being an unmarried or divorced woman is a strong social stigma that parents would rather
see their daughter dead than see their daughter in attaining one of those states. In case for
example, a woman returns to the home of her natal family to the extent that murder was
attempted by her husband and in-laws, she will still be forced by her parents to return to her
husband and obviously, murder will take place (Musa, 2012). It can be stated that the parents
killed, though indirectly, their own child. In some cases, when there are two daughters, the first
daughter will be married to one man and then killed afterwards, the parents then will not
complained and willingly gave their second daughter to marry, having the same fate as her
sister (Musa, 2012). This shows that even the family wants to get rid of all the female children
making them one of the perpetrators.
Women in India are disregarded by their own country. Males are favoured by families
because of various reasons that complement the cultural norms of the society: Dowry is not
required for men; men will be able to support their parents in their old age; men are the only
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ones who can perform death rituals; and men can support the family from recieving gifts and
cash from her family because of dowry (Johnson & Johnson, 2001). Since women will have to
go to their husband’s home once she is married, she will not be able to support her parents
because she is away. Although she can visit them daily for turns in caring, she cannot support
her natal family unlike her brothers can. In performing death rituals, Hinduism only requires men
to enter the crematorium, where the death rituals can take place. If there are no sons and only
daughters, other male family member (like a cousin) will perform death rituals. This is not
favoured because other family members are less intimate unlike their own children. Men are
also valued greatly for they can receive dowry which can help the family financially; also, the
dowry received from her wife can be used to give dowry for her sister. The Indian government
takes little participation in the protection of the women. The Dowry prohibition act is made by the
government to enforce the banning of this practice but it remained ineffective because the
population are still expecting and supporting it (Johnson & Johnson, 2001). In the case of the
example above, Sannamma and her parents are supporting dowry because they give in to
Raju’s irrational demands. If they support this prohibition act, they should collect evidence that
Raju is demanding for dowry. A possible reason is the lack of effective measurement of the
government in judging the suspect. Since it is hard to prove someone’s guilty, the evidence
should be carefully laid out by Sannamma, her family, and the government – she should get all
the help she needs.
The human right to life is seen violated in women of India. Bride burning, female
infanticide and female foeticide are not justifiable in any situation (Gupta, 2003). Bride burning is
where the woman is burned to death because she is not able to suffice the dowry demands of
her husband; since the wife is lacking, men resorts in killing their own wife for them to be able to
re marry again and extract dowries from her new wife (Johnson & Johnson, 2001). Families
prefer a male child that is why female infanticide and foeticide is done. Female infanticide is the
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process in which the female infants are killed after birth, while female foeticide is the process in
which the female foetus inside the womb of the woman is aborted. Since there is the current
technology where the sex of the foetus inside the womb of the mother can be determined,
female foeticide is much more prevalent in these times; because of these, the sex ration of men
and women in India are greatly adverse (Johnson, 2001). Although there is an argument where
foetus are not yet human to acclaim their rights, they still have the right to live and it is not up for
the parents to decide why they want to abort their child because of some cultural norms.
The struggle of women for this oppression is mostly not seen. Although Dowry is banned
by the national government by enforcing a law, the population are ignoring it. Just the
Declaration of its illegality is not enough for the population to obey (Musa, 2012). It is hard to
take away from the people these cultural norms and traditions but if it is oppressing women,
they should all cooperate. The women, who are victims of these traditions, are even supporting
the norms. Women are the one responsible for transmitting cultural norms, traditions, values to
their children and their children’s children (Gupta, 2003). From this statement, it can be
concluded that she is responsible for transferring unfavourable traditions including dowry that
oppresses women. Another factor is that women accepted the fact that is normal for women to
be abused by men because it is their way to discipline them (Musa, 2012). They believe that it is
common for women to get hurt so they just accept it and endure the torture. But again, this
should not be tolerated; every person should be free from torture. Lastly, Some Women are
against themselves by being a perpetrator of other women; take for example a mother in law
and her daughter in law where the mother in law is involved in the killing of her daughter in law
(Johnson & Johnson, 2001) Women should help themselves and cooperate to claim their rights;
they should not accept the norms of the society.
A patriarchal society is very evident in India. There are gender biases and prejudices;
men are valued more than women. Women cannot even attain independency. Since a young
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woman cannot refuse marriage for social issues, all the men in her life control her: a father in
her unmarried state, a husband in her married state, and the sons in her widowed state
(Johnson & Johnson, 2001). There are instances when the husband dies first before her, if this
happens, she cannot marry and has two options: either her sons take care of her or she is
burned alive together with her corpse husband, this burning is called sati, another tradition in
India (Johnson & Johnson, 2001). They say that the reason for this is that women are seen that
her purpose in life is to serve her husband, if her husband dies, she should die since she has no
longer a purpose. From this statement, it is seen that the patriarchy is so strong that women are
oppressed because of this.
The Indian society is rich in culture and traditions but they are full of norms that oppress
women. From the statements above, these norms do nothing but to harm women. Although, it
has sound reasoning on why the Indian society did it, it is based on patriarchal view without any
consideration for women. They are not even treated as a human being in this society. Women
should throw these norms away and acclaim their rights as a person. For them to acclaim their
rights, women first should be respected. Johnson and Johnson (2001) says that women should
be educated so that they can have financial security in case their husband attempts to murder
her and she had run away. The government should help in throwing away prejudices in women
in the society. They should teach the youth about equality. The Indian society should also seek
help from international communities since many communities have attained gender equality in
the past few years. Men and Women are both human beings having equal rights; they should
both cooperate to build a long lasting and comfortable society for both man and women, young
and old. After all, the world we live in is not only for men but for all beings.

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