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A brand called dowry

In the fuss over the Nisha Sharmas and Farzanas, no one seems to remember that these girls did not object to dowry per se. CHITRA PADMANABHAN surveys how the concept of dowry has been deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche.


Nisha Sharma and her 'dowry' ... marriage has become a brand event.

IT'S been a while since a countrywide brigade — albeit small — of bridegroom-rejecting brides, flagged off by the petite 21-year-old Nisha Sharma, took the world by storm. Now that the dust has settled, it is time to examine whether the courageous stance of Sharma, Farzana and Vidya Balasubramaniam (the other two who called off their marriages at the last moment) was indeed a triumphant strike on patriarchy and social discriminations.

It is important to go back to a telling image of Sharma — with hennaed hands and a dowry of branded washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, music systems and a car in the background — as she announced that her protest was not against dowry per se but against the manner in which her future in-laws abused her father while demanding more. What stung Sharma was that her in-laws-to-be acted unilaterally against the spirit of a mutually brokered deal on the amount of dowry to be given. More dowry — that was the crux of the problem.

Again, most women who made news by cancelling their weddings, did so only because they didn't agree to the excess of dowry. That dowry is being given and taken was not questioned. Their incomplete protests explain why the law against dowry is largely ineffective in India — it needs people to complain against the custom of dowry.

But who can stand up to the pressures of dowry today? Dowry is a skein that unites the country, from a 100 per cent literate Kerala, the economically developed Punjab and Gujarat, to a backward Bihar. In a televised debate, while responding to a question on her excessive dowry, Sharma replied that families spend only on two occasions — marriage and house construction. The connection between a daughter's marriage and the economic strain on a family has been reflected in Indian literature, cinema and the media. Our talented advertisement creators slip in the "money-is-needed-for-her-marriage" phrase in their campaigns. Most insurance advertisements play upon the anxiety of the father — can he give his daughter a grand wedding and a huge dowry? A parent's ultimate gift to the daughter, even now, remains an opulent wedding and lots of branded items in the dowry. The families of many grooms-to-be see dowry as a one-way ticket up the economic and social ladder. And more particularly, in these times of increasing economic uncertainties.

Politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, executives and even unemployed men — all come with a price tag in the dowry market. The market, in fact, has turned the solemn marriage ceremony into a huge brand event. Parents vie with one another to display the many consumer brands they will gift and the grand spectacle they will organise. There cannot be a better advertisement for big Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies than the image of Sharma's "brand-full" dowry looming large behind her — dwarfing her — as she declares why she put an end to her wedding.

For many years, experts have argued that since women are excluded from property rights, dowry amounts to their share of the property or streedhan (woman's wealth). But dowry by itself has rarely offered independence to women. The National Crime Records Bureau says there are over 6,000 dowry-related deaths every year. The liberalised, consumer driven 1990s saw a surge in dowry related deaths — from 400 a year in the mid-1980s to 6,000 a year in the mid-1990s. The 2001 Census mirrors the damage to the status of women and girls in the last decade. The declining child sex ratio in the country (923 girls/1,000 boys from 0-6 years), largely due to sex selective abortions, has been reported mostly from so-called "developed" states, which are industrialised, have large consumer markets and high economic growth. Punjab leads the pack (793), followed by Haryana (820), Delhi (865), Gujarat (879) and Maharashtra (917).

The data forces us to believe that urban, modern parents prefer sons. Many have abused ultrasound technology to check whether they will have a daughter or son. One of the reasons cited for not wanting girls is the liability they pose in terms of a dowry. Social discrimination, patriarchy, consumerism, technology, and violence against women — the cycle is only getting more vicious. It's time for future Sharmas and Farzanas to abandon the soft focus on dowry. It's time to abandon all those alluring images of a father bidding a bounteous farewell to his married daughter for love and for the family's "honour". It's time to reject totally the widely marketed brand called dowry.

Women's Feature Service

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