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Updated: November 3, 2009 09:52 IST

Contentious themes of dowry

PADMINI SWAMINATHAN
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A product of the ‘Dowry Project’ established in 1995 after an International Conference on Dowry and Bride Burning at Harvard University, this thought-provoking and engaging volume revisits several contentious themes related to dowry. Noting that much of the material is familiar stuff, the editors, nevertheless contend that “this more familiar material is located within the context of new research that asks important questions which aim to contribute towards a greater understanding of the shifting dynamics of the dowry terrain...”

While placing gender at the centre of its analysis, the volume avoids the emphasis on ‘dowry violence.’ There is no way this review can do justice to all the nine papers in this publication. Due to constraints of space only a few of the themes discussed are highlighted.

Contradictory

At the outset, it needs to be pointed out that, while the Introduction does grapple with the question ‘What is dowry?’, and goes on to describe the different understandings of the term, the fact that every paper has chosen to emphasise its own understanding of what constitutes dowry has led to seemingly contradictory conclusions. Take for example, Dalmia and Lawrence’s paper. The general understanding is that dowry has, over time, spread to different regions, religious groups, and castes and that it has ‘inflated’. But the authors, employing secondary data on trends and patterns in dowry transaction, and defining dowry in real values and not nominal values — and as net transfers and not total transfers — have this to say by way of conclusion: “Based on our definition of dowry and the size of our sample compared to other ethnographic studies, we find the real value of net dowry to be declining marginally in the regions of both North and South India.” On the whole, the volume cannot be said to have accomplished satisfactorily the difficult task of analytically segregating the different aspects of dowry — cash transfers, gifts, marriage expenses, etc., — and exploring what combinations of these have gained currency at what time and in what contexts, and among which communities.

Bradley’s discussion of the interface between gender, religion, and dowry is interesting; her point that “it is short-sighted for religion to be left out of the analysis into patriarchy in both western and non-western societies” and that, “the inclusion of religion can help researchers and activists understand the pervasive nature of dowry and gender ideology on which it depends,” is well taken. However, what is problematic about her piece is its exclusive engagement with Hindu religion and therefore its inability to answer why Indian Christians and Indian Muslims, among other religious groups, have also been sucked into the dowry vortex.

In the absence of a similar reading of texts of other religions, the query that arises from Bradley’s paper, and which needs academic engagement, is how and why has a pernicious socio-cultural phenomenon such as dowry been able to transcend religious boundaries and become so pervasive.

Male dowry

The examination of ‘male dowry’ narratives across three generations in Tamil Nadu by Kate Jehan provides refreshingly new insights into what is otherwise seen as a ‘women’s problem.’ Notwithstanding the interesting framework that she has deployed to order the male voices, the paper raises more questions than it has sought to answer. For instance, while Jehan, in a footnote, says her paper is part of a larger study where interviews were conducted from a wide range of households, covering three major religions, differentiated by caste and class, the write-up fails to reflect the richness of that field study. Further, while women’s studies have, over the years, addressed the socio-economic-cultural-religious context that circumscribes women’s behaviour and response to situations that confront them, Jehan does not seem to have used the opportunity of field research to find out why the men she interviewed felt compelled to listen to their parents if they felt otherwise on the issue of dowry. Did all men, irrespective of their level of education and/or income or religion feel similarly unempowered and therefore acquiesced into accepting dowry?

In mapping out the future directions of the ‘Dowry Project,’ Tomalin has emphasised ‘masculinities and dowry’ as an important area of research. This aspect is certainly under-researched; however, if dowry is the issue, then the project team needs to undertake research relating to certain fundamental but uncomfortable aspects of Indian society: is marriage universal across all societies in the world or unique to Indian society?

The pervasive anxiety in India to ‘settle’ children through marriage has other and gender-centric repercussions as manifested in providing lower levels of education for girls, denying girls share in property, viewing the girl child as an economic burden, and so on. The ‘Dowry Project’ is uniquely placed to undertake an integrated study of these discriminatory practices, if it so chooses, rather than viewing them as independent of one another.

DOWRY — Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice: Edited by Tamsin Bradley, Emma Tomalin, and Mangala Subramaniam; Women Unlimited, K-36, Hauz Khas Enclave, Ground Floor, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 350.

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