Dowry Bridging The Gap Between Theory And Practice

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Item Code: NAG219
Author: Various Authors
Publisher: Women Unlimited
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788188965472
Pages: 257
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 460 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

This book explores dowry practices in South Asia from a number of theoretical perspectives and through a multidisciplinary lens. It provides an overview of these debates and discussions as they have developed since the 1960s, with emergence of the Indian women's movement in particular.

New research asks important questions about the spread of dowry, the shifting dynamics of thee dowry terrain, and the role of gender in underpinning dowry abuse. How is the practice being resisted both in South Asia, as well as globally? What roles do religion, culture, economics, class or caste play in shaping dowry practices as well as perpetuating the abuse of dowry customs that result in death or injury to women across South Asia? This volume analyses and explores the dynamics of these changes and the complexities they involve. It highlights the particular role that academic research can play and presents suggestions about the sorts of activism and action necessary to end dowry injustice.

About the Author

Tamsin Bradley is senior Lecturer and Course Leader for social Anthropology (BSC) in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University. Key publications include a monograph, challenging the NGOs Religion, Western Discourses and Indian women (2006).

Emma Tomalin is Senior Lecturer in Religious studies, in the Department of Theology and Religious studies at the University of Leeds. Her forthcoming book is titled Bio-divinity and Biodiversity the Limits of Religious Environmentalism (2009).

Mangala Subramaniam is Associate professor of Sociology at Purdue University. She has written articles in several journals on sociology and her monograph, The power of Women's Organizing Gender, Caste and class in India (2006) focuses on the women's movement in India, specifically on dalit women's organizing.

Contributors: Srimati Basu, Sonia Dalmia, Kate Jehan, Pareena Lawrence, Debarshmi Mitra, Rajni Palriwala, Karen Remedios and Santi Rozario.


This volume has its genesis in a network called the Dowry Project, which was established in 1995 at the International Conference on Dowry and Bride Burning at Harvard University, USA, with the aim of encouraging, sharing and disseminating research in the areas of dowry, bride burning and son preference in South Asia and the diaspora. It has now held sex successful international conferences, which have attracted the participation of academics, practitioners and activists: Harvard University (1995, 1996 and 1998); the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (1997); and New Delhi (2001 and 2003). Three of the most prominent founding members were Himendra Thakur, Werner Menski and the late Julia Leslie. Research undertaken in the early phase of the project had three main objectives. First, the production of reliable, in depth studies of incidents recorded as 'dowry deaths' in order to be absolutely certain of the link between violence against women and dowry practices, to prove this link be3yond doubt and to highlight that such deaths were not just accidental occurrences affecting relatively few Indian women. Second, that research should seek to uncover the motivations behind dowry related crimes and to prove that violence against women is not an inherent part of dowry (although high levels of domestic violence exist), but has been attributed to it by an increase in the level of greed from in-laws who see it as a means to improve their material their material well-being. Third, to understand why anti-dowry campaigns have been largely unsuccessful. This research focused on the possibility that dowry persists because women themselves hold onto the practice, seeing it as a means to preserve their self-respect and negotiate their position as they make the transition into another family as married women.

The project's main goal of raising the visibility of issues relation to dowry through academic research represents a very small part of the wider 'anti-dowry' movement. Moreover, it raises important questions about the relationship between academic theory, research and activism, with medical and legal practitioners and socio-political activists playing a vital role in the network in enhancing awareness of the type of research that is most needed. Thus, a network has emerged that offers academics, practitioners and activists the opportunity to disseminate their work and share experiences of dowry with the common objective of eradicating dowry injustice. The academics involved in the project are based mainly in India, the USA and Europe, and include medical and legal researchers, historians and social scientists. Research that members publish on dowry is disseminated across the network via group emails and a discussion forum. The practitioners involved include health professionals, mainly female doctors, who have treated large numbers of women for injuries due to dowry harassment by husbands and in-laws. At the most recent conference a paper was presented by Dr Achla Daga on her experience in a public hospital in Mumbai treating women who suffered from dowry related injuries. Also contributing to discussions are non-governmental organizations, such as 'Point of View' in Mumbai, working on issues of gender injustice. The practicing lawyers who are involved analyze the effectiveness of dowry legislation and catalogue dowry cases. All of them are concerned that research on dowry should translate into activism to end unjust cultural practices in the lives of South Asian women.

Some of the contributors to this volume have attended one or other of the events hosted by the network whereas others are newer 'members', having more recently participated in a panel at the 2006 annual conference of the British Association of South Asian Studies at Birkbeck College, London. What unites all of them, however, is a commitment to bridge the gap between their academic research, practice and activism against dowry and to contribute to the eradication of violence against women that is occurring as a result of dowry practice. The main aim underpinning much of the research by current project members is to explore practical measures capable of responding to the deep-rooted and multiple impact dowry has on women's lives. The essays in this volume engage with the notion of 'feminist praxis' in considering that there should be a dialectical relationship between 'theory' and 'practice' (Stanley and Wise 1990). Such feminist activist scholarship (Naples 2006) is at the heart of the Dowry project which seeks to campaign for an end to dowry injustice through the generation of empirical and theoretical research that helps to extend and deepen our understanding of how and why dowry exists in both Hindu and non-Hindu communities. Members' research has looked at dowry through a range of interdisciplinary themes, some of which has been presented at the different conferences held by the network. Topics have included 'the economics of marriage'; 'dowry, property and inheritance rights' 'collective action to challenge the practice of dowry'; 'legal changes and domestic violence'; 'the women's movement and dowry'; caste and dowry'; 'dowry and Indian literature'; dowry and Hindu scriptures'; and 'dowry and son preference'. However, this volume reflects a move to broaden the focus in several key areas. Firstly, the emphasis to date has been largely legalistic with less attention paid to the role of other factors, such as the inherent gender discrimination within heterosexual marriage or the influence of patriarchal religious systems upon social attitudes towards gender that influence dowry practice. On the whole, the network did not examine dowry through a gendered methodology. In contrast, this volume places gender at the centre of its analysis. Secondly, the network has tended to draw attention to the most visually harrowing aspects of dowry harassment, such as bride burning, rather than a more complex analysis of the foundations of dowry (see also Narayan 1997; Rudd 2001).

The projects agenda is fluid and is not determined by a committee or director but by individual members whose work reflects their own experiences of dowry and relationships with South Asian women affected by it. Members benefit from being part of the overall network because it represents a forum for the exchange of ideas and enables encounters between people whose experiences differ yet can offer each other critical, supportive advice on their work. The transnational and interdisciplinary character of this volume is a positive step towards engagement between scholars from various regions of the world that has been facilitated by the relative ease of modern communication as a result of globalizing trends. But it is also appropriate to acknowledge the challenges that we as editors have faced, mostly in bringing together the expert insights of authors trained in a variety of disciplines who also conform to different writing styles and the use of difference discipline-specific technical knowledge. Our efforts have been directed at staying focused on the central themes of the volume and ensuring that these contributions can be easily read and digested by readers coming from diverse backgrounds. But we have also endeavoured to retain the different styles, approaches and theoretical insights the contributors brought to the discussion.

The leading research on dowry that is presented here is a valuable tool for those seeking to pursue this topic in their work (Including academics, policy makers and activists). The Dowry project receives constant emails from researchers across the globe inquiring about the activities and publications of the network. It is clear that volume is long awaited.


It is difficult to provide a precise definition of dowry since it has undergone distinct transformations over time, and it can encapsulate a range of different practices of marital gift giving. Both dowry and bride price in South Asia have been identified as oppressive practices (Unnithan Kumar 2005: 27), but it is dowry that has attracted most attention for its association with different strands of violence against women. As described below, dowry itself is not a violent practice and in its most basic form has been interpreted as a form of pre mortem inheritance for women who otherwise lack inheritance rights equal to those of men. However, evidence has amassed of abuses against women that can be associated with the system. Dowry is not uniquely South Asian and the exchange of goods or money at the time of marriage is a custom that has been found across the globe since antiquity. However, in South Asia by the 1980s it had become the focus of an 'anti dowry' or 'dowry boycott' campaign, a sustained and vocal campaign fronted by the women's movement (Palriwala in this volume).

Dowry related harassment, sometimes resulting in so called 'dowry death' or 'bride burning' (Lesilie 1998; Butalia 2002; Stone3 and James 1995; Sirohi 2003), became an increasing burden facing women from all castes and classes in modern India as well as the diaspora. What was once a largely confined to upper caste Hindus in the north of India spread to other castes, religions and regions. The reasons for this are complex and are, at least partially, dependent upon a combination of Sanskritisation (upper caste emulation), neo-liberalization and rise of cash incomes (Banerjee and Jain 2001; Banerjee 2002). Moreover there is some perception that the size of dowries has grown in recent decades putting increased pressure on families to prefer sons to daughters, thereby exacerbating an existing tendency towards son preference. The impact of this upon the 'reversed sex ratio' in India is well documented with the numbers of missing females due to sex selective abortion and female infanticide on the increase in many regions (Basu 199a; Banerjee 2002; Dreze and Sen 2002; Jayaraj and Subramanian 2004; Sen 1992, 1993; Sunder Rajan 2003).

While dowry practices can be linked to different forms of violence against females, others argue that the practice itself is inherently sexist since it can be seen as a measure of women's lack of status and empowerment as they are effectively traded on the marriage market. The spread and inflation of dowry further entrenches the notion that marriage is compulsory for women. And it also inhibits opportunities for women and it also inhibits opportunities for women and girls on many levels. For instance, critics frequently point towards the development costs of dowry for women, focusing upon its expense and its links to poverty. Women often do not retain any sort of ownership of their dowry and money spent on it can mean that fewer resources are available for girls before their marriage. That dowry reflects and reinforces existing gender hierarchies in India is emphasized throughout this volume. It is argued that although there has been a tendency in anti dowry initiatives to focus upon the violent aspects of dowry giving (as they are the most politically visible), as well as legal solutions to the problem we cannot begin to understand the hold and consequences of dowry nor hope to deal with them effectively, without understanding and tackling structural gender inequalities in society more broadly.

The exact nature of the dowry problem and how to approach it is by no means straightforward. Thinking about different sorts of dowry practices (from the seemingly benign to the pernicious) urges us to reconsider whether it is the dowry system itself or, more specifically, its abuse (linked to dowry escalation and harassment) that should be rallied against. This issue has been a matter for debate, with key activists in the field actually shifting their position over time. Most notably Madhu Kishwar editor of the feminist magazine Manushi had been one of the key proponents of the 1980 'dowry boycott' (Kishwar and Five Others 2005 [1980]: 265; Palrivala in this volume) but by 1988 had rethought her position. Frustrated at the lack of success and support for the 'dowry boycott' she came to the conclusion that, without widespread change for women in Indian society, including a strengthening of women's inheritance rights, a boycott could in fact be counterproductive (Kishwar 2005 [1988]. For Kishwar, the potential of dowry to provide women with some form of inheritance that could improve their position within their marital homes meant that for women to refuse dowry and go empty handed to their marital homes is to suggest that they make even greater martyrs of themselves than society makes of them' (2005 [1988]: 269; 1989). While Kishwar has been criticized for effectively sidelining considerations of gender she promotes her view as more realistic of the way that women view dowry (Basu 2005).

Others, including Palriwala (1989) and Lakshmi (1989), have strongly rejected this and consider that dowry itself is inherently problematic for women because it is primarily transacted between men (with women having no involvement in marriage negotiations which ultimately affect them) and because it is premised upon the inferiority of the bride3's future contribution to her husband and his family who must thereby be financially compensated for 'taking her on'. Palriwala and Lakshmi do concur with Kishwar that strengthening inheritance rights is crucial, but disagree that this should be approached apart from the anti dowry campaign. As Sirohi summarized 'the two problems had to be tackled simultaneously. Dowry and other practices degrade women, and one is not exclusive of the other' (2003: 53).

In this introduction I will first discuss some definitions of 'dowry' for readers who are unfamiliar with this practice and its history in South Asia. Then I will move on to look at the ways in which dowry has become transformed over recent decades. Althou7gh any form of dowry does involve a transaction that places value on women, and as such its gendered consensus that it is the modern form of dowry in South Asia (what Srinivas calls the 'new dowry') that is particularly problematic, as well as the fact that it perseveres in its most pernicious form, despite the strong presence of the campaigns of the women's movement in India (Srinivas 1984; Menski 1998:17). How have scholars explained and theorized this 'new dowry' who and what underpins the cycle of culpability and how can it be broken?

The dowry system payments from the b ride's family to the groom or groom's family at the time of marriage has a long history in India and other Asian societies. The modern Indian dowry system has its roots in the traditional upper caste practices of Kanyadhan (literal meaning gift of the virgin bride), varadakshina (voluntary gifts given by relatives and friends to the bride.) Traditionally, although these gifts could be significant, they were often small tokens of good wishes. More recently, however, the dowry has come to involve a substantial transfer of wealth from the bride's family to the groom's and has become a major factor in marriage negotiations.

Scholars have also portrayed dowry as a form of pre mortem inheritance for women (Tambiah 1973; Caplan 1984; Palriwala; and Basu in this volume). The link between dowry as an upper caste custom and dowry as a form of inheritance is also relevant, since upper caste women were less likely to participate in employment away from the home (see Dalmia and Lawrence in this volume). Thus dowry can be seen as:

A way of compensating the groom and his family for the economic support they would provide to the new wife, because women had little or no role in the market economy and would be dependent upon their husbands and in laws. This interpretation is consistent with the fact that the dowry was historically practiced largely in the upper castes, among whom women's economic roles were particularly restricted. In contributors to their families, the custom o the bride price was more common (Srinivasan and Lee 2004: 1108-09).

However, it is the consequences of the spread and inflation of dowry during the latter half of the 20the century and its inclusion on the agenda of the women's movement that transformed it into an issue that has attracted the interest of scholars from across disciplines. Anthropologists discuss dowry in terms of the literature on gift, reciprocity and exchange, marriage and kinship rites (Unnithan-Kumar 2005; Evans Pritchard 1951; Levi-Strauss 1949), whereas sociologists consider it in terms of theories about social problems (Sitaraman 1999), the family (Banerjee 1999; Prasad 1994) and the response of society (community, media, institutions, activists) Palriwala 1989; and in this volume). Economists, such as Dalmia and Lawrence (in this volume), focus their attention on data about the amounts exchanged and the bargaining that takes place3 (Anderson 2003; Bloch, Desai and Rao 2004; Bloch and Rao 2002; Rao 1993) and legal scholars (see Basu in this volume) are interested in legislative attempts to curb dowry (Sandanshiv and Mathew 1995; Basu 2005; Butalia 2002; Sitaraman 1999; Menski 1998). Human geographers reflect upon the demographics of the practice (e.g. Bhat and Halli 1999) and historians attempt to locate dowry within texts and practices from the past (Oldenburg 2002; Nabar 1995). We also find contributions from psychologists (Rastogi and Therly 2006) and within medical journals (Jutla and Heimbach 2004; Kumar and Tripathi 2004) as researchers aim to document and theorise the profound mental and physical impact of dowry violence upon the lives of many women.

Despite this great effort from within academic disciplines to reflect upon dowry and its consequences, defining dowry in South Asia can still be challenging and problematic, particularly since it has undergone distinct transformations over time. Modern dowry can be seen as gifts of cash and /or kind from the family of the bride to that of the groom as a condition of marriage (Rudd 2001; Srinivasan and Lee 2004; Sirohi 2003; Tambiah 1973). However, considering the fact that today requests for dowry often continue after a marriage, Rastogi and Therly define dowry as 'the wealth a bride brings to her husband at the time of and after the wedding' (2006 67, emphasis mine). Dowry payments can range for large and ostentatious gifts that can seriously stress the financial security of the bride's family, to smaller offerings that are more nominal in character. Some families make open demands whereas others see dowry as an unspoken condition. Nonetheless, what is of concern is evidence of the ways in which dowry is dangerous for women since it leaves them vulnerable to violence and underpins damaging gender hierarchies. Dowry was outlawed in 1961 in the Dowry prohibition Act, but this has been ineffectual in bringing the practice to an end. Instead social norms prevail and, as Rastogi and Therly note, it continues to be true that 'dowry is exchanged in the majority of Indian weddings' (2006: 66).



Acknowledgements v
Preface vii
Introduction 1
Dowry in Rural Bangladesh An intractable problem? 29
Heroes or Hondas? Analyzing men's dowry narratives in a time of rapid social change 59
The Interfaces between Gender, Religion and Dowry 87
Trends and patterns in Dowry Transactions Evidence from North and South India 115
The Spider's Web Seeing dowry, fighting dowry 144
Legacies of the Dowry Prohibition Act in India Marriage practices and feminist discourses 177
Dowry and Transnational Activism 197
Conclusion 226
Contributors 242

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