VHPA Position Paper on Dowry:
“Where women are revered, even gods crave to reside there; and in a place where women are not respected, no effort can bear fruit,” says a well-known verse of the Hindu scriptures. With every god, Hindus worship a goddess with equal, if not higher, affection and devotion. Throughout the history of India, from the Vedic era up to the present, many women have attained the highest rank in various walks of life. Illustrious female personalities like Anusuya, Seeta, Draupadi, Gargi, Maitreyee, Rani Durgavati, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Meerabai, Mahadevi Varma, to name a few, have illuminated the national and social panorama. There was a unique tradition in this country, lasting from one Yuga to another, where in order to win the hand of a princess in marriage; numerous brave and gifted princes had to compete in open royal ceremonies called “Swayamvar”.
In Hindu society that was so respectful of women, there is a present-day custom, practically all pervasive and utterly shameful, that degrades women beyond description. It is called dowry or dahej (in Hindi).
Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America considers the present day custom of dowry prevalent in many Indian communities as a deplorable social aberration. VHPA strongly believes that this serious social ill should be eliminated from all segments of society at the very earliest for a healthier and happier social and national order.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘dowry’ as:
- The property that a woman brings to her husband
- A natural talent, gift, or endowment
- [Archaic] a widow’s dower
- [Archaic] a gift by a man to his bride.
It is useful to analyze the current practice of ‘dahej’ in India in reference to the above meanings of the word ‘dowry.’
First, dahej is not the ‘property’ that a woman ‘brings’ to her husband at the time of marriage. Rather, it has become the property that the bride’s parents or kin are practically obliged and compelled, usually against their own free will, to ‘present’ to the groom’s parents well before the marriage. Effectively dahej has become a precondition to marriage. Dahej is essentially an implicit or explicit demand imposed by the groom’s parents, and is often fulfilled by the bride’s family with excruciating hardship. Commonly, the net worth of the property involved (cash, house, land, gold, automobile, appliances, and other luxury items) is directly proportional to the eligibility of the prospective husband in terms of his academic degrees, professional prospects and income level in real or imaginary salary. “We have spent so much to educate our son,” goes the standard argument the groom’s parents advance, with the unsaid “so it is now our turn to be reimbursed.” A clever, and sometimes genuine, variation to this theme is: “We have our own daughter(s) to be married, for whom we must pay so much ‘dahej’ and, in order to manage that liability, we must ask for this ‘dahej’ for our son.”
Secondly, as is obvious from above, ‘dahej’ is scarcely a ‘natural talent, gift or endowment’ of the woman. Rather, it is a highly contrived artifact to enrich the bank balance or material possessions of the groom’s parents, at the painful expense of the bride’s parents, regrettably with little regard to the bride’s natural talents or gifts.
Thirdly, dahej is rarely a widow’s dower or inheritance in the unfortunate event of the woman becoming a widow. If such a provision or predisposition of the dahej-property were guaranteed even partially, this custom could be considered somewhat justifiable. However, usually the situation is just the opposite: the dahej assets are relentlessly consumed by the groom’s family, the woman – married, divorced or widowed – rarely receives or inherits any part of it, and is left high and dry if tragedy strikes. She may not be accepted back into her father’s house either and often has to fend for herself and her children by her own toil. She, in fact, becomes an outcast in her own community, a virtual slave in her own home, a plight that could have easily been averted if she were legally allowed to utilize the dahej-property if calamity were to strike. A custom of designating a widow’s dower, even if it ever really existed, has now certainly become archaic and extinct in our society.
This brings us to the fourth meaning of the word ‘dowry’: “a gift by a man to his bride” – certainly the most archaic meaning and completely untrue in the Indian context. Anthropologists suggest that in some tribal cultures it is customary for the groom to convey dowry to the bride as a gift. But, in mainstream Indian communities, the burden of conveying dahej-property squarely falls on the drooping shoulders of the bride’s parents, often marring the genuine glow that should accompany the joyous occasion of their daughter’s marriage.
Thus, we conclude that the meaning of the word ‘dahej’ is not the same as the word ‘dowry’ defined by Webster or commonly perceived in the West. Instead, it a peculiar, indigenous Indian version has emerged, which is cumbersome to the bride and her family.
Needless to say there are untold repugnant and horrifying repercussions of the custom of dahej. The symptoms of the illness of dahej linger in varying forms and degrees even after the marriage ceremony and celebration and seriously hamper a happy and healthy relationship between the two individuals and families concerned. As if that were not enough of a curse, dahej wreaks dreadful degradation, peril and death to the Indian womanhood, from birth – nay, even prior to the birth of a female human being. Examples of such ‘side-effects’ of dahej are numerous. In this context, the practice of selective (female) embryo-killing, abortion, termination of a baby-girl’s life, deprivation of full education to many a girl, child-marriage, marriage to a much older groom, unwed-motherhood, sale of young girls into the desperation and desolation of prostitution, by default if not by design, and ‘bride burning’ need to be mentioned.
Many married couples or their families, upon finding that the baby conceived by an expectant mother, or born is a female, secretly conspire to eliminate the embryo, the fetus or the new born baby girl. Corrupt midwives, doctors, clinics and hospitals sometimes aid this inhuman act. Many cases of shocking female embryo killings have recently surfaced in the country, mainly unearthed by the vigilant media. Indeed, the actual female fatalities may be more numerous than those exposed or surmised by the media or sociological studies. Such heinous incidents represent one of the most direct and tragic consequences of the dahej epidemic.
Even if left alive to grow, many a girl remains uneducated or undereducated. The simple reason behind this social aspect is the common perception of the girl’s parents that they would have to seek a better educated husband for her, which translates into a larger sum that would invariably be stipulated by the groom’s party in dahej. Lack of proper education in women, in turn, leads to perpetuation of illiteracy, superstition and ignorance for her progeny. Thus, dahej casts a long and dark shadow over the society, generation after generation.
The origin of many of the above mentioned ills of society are traceable to the vile practice of dahej. The vilest and most shameful among these is the one made universally infamous by the Western press under the sensational heading: ‘Bride Burning.’ Even though these incidents reflect a social anomaly present in only a few depraved families, and even if the foreign press has exaggerated and distorted the unfortunate happenings, there is no denying the fact that many brides suffer loss of lives, symptomatically or even literally, on account of issues related to the custom of dahej. Extreme cases include the terrible incidents of ‘suicidal self-immolation’ or becoming a victim of ‘accidental’ fire. The motives, on part of the greedy and murderous in-laws, range from coercion to fetch additional dahej-property, to revenge for bringing less than the demanded dahej, to the temptation of a second dahej when the widower marries for a second time. Any civilized person would shudder with horror and revulsion at such a cruel and inhuman face of dahej that brings our country to shame.
Of course, laws have been passed making the act of giving or taking dahej a crime. Yet the concerned parties continue to carry on the illicit practice in secrecy or under some guise or pretext. Scarcely any one responsible for taking or giving dahej is officially convicted by the courts or punished by the public at large. No one raises the obvious question as to why it is the bride’s party that must pay dahej to the groom’s, and not the other way round. Ideally, any improper exchange of property in the form of dahej, as a precondition for marriage should be not only outlawed but also rejected outright by both parties, in principle and practice.
A major reason for the origin of the custom of dahej is that in a patriarchal family system followed by Indian society, daughters do not inherit the father’s property as the sons do. Perhaps the idea of dahej-type gift – distorted and dysfunctional as it has become – was initially given to a daughter by her thoughtful parents, out of free will, to compensate for this inherent inequity. What better time to offer such a gift than at the time of the daughter’s marriage, when she stepped out to start a new life with her new life-partner at her new (in-laws’) house! With the introduction of the new Amendment in the Hindu Code Bill, this socioeconomic deficit has been largely remedied, however. Now a woman is entitled to receive her fair share of the parental property and to take it to her in-laws upon marriage. This should make the vulgar, and relatively recent, convention of dahej all the more immoral and obsolete. In any case, eradication of this evil custom should be of as much priority for the reformation of the Hindu society as that of the divisive ‘caste-system’ or the tyrannical and outdated practice of ‘untouchability.’
At the same time, it must be emphasized that little can be achieved by the introduction of legal measures and maneuvers. Without commonly shared values and resolve for social reform, more legislation would hardly guarantee a reduction in the level of greed; rather it would likely breed even more corruption. Actually, a sense of righteousness among the people, particularly the youth of marriageable age, is necessary and required to rid the society of this evil and harmful custom. If all the prospective grooms put up a peaceful but resolute resistance to their parents, respectfully refusing to marry unless they discarded the very idea of dahej, this curse of the society would automatically evaporate in no time. The vital potential role of the male youth in this crucial step (call it the ‘Step Zero’ among the ‘Seven Steps’) of holy matrimony is self-evident. Women could also play a similar role in boycotting this custom, although they are the victims of this custom and have only limited latitude. Obviously, the woman’s parents would need little persuasion to give up this custom. Women’s organizations can also contribute immensely toward abolishing dahej from the society.
It is ironic that while, in principle, most Hindus regard a woman to be a “Ghar ki Lakshmi” – a living image of the goddess of wealth and prosperity – in practice such a negative, destructive and humiliating custom as dahej continues. VHPA aims to strive to make every effort toward abolishing it from Hindu society and calls upon Hindus everywhere to take a firm stand against it.