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Laws and Social Evils- Why dowry still plagues us?

The functioning of the world we live in is premised on certain power hierarchies, entrenched over centuries- defined on grounds of gender, religion, caste, ethnicity and other physical and non-physical indicators, these power structures exercise a pervasive influence on the governance of our society. In both implicit and explicit ways, centuries of inequality have created a social order that allows systems such as patriarchy to create an environment which discriminates on arbitrary lines- such as gender.

The lived experience of oppression differs for each individual and is shaped by a combination of social and economic factors. There is no single act that uniformly affects all women, rather there is a systematic disenfranchisement that impugns upon their rights and freedoms. In conservative setups, access to education or more generally, the freedom to pursue one’s ambition is severely curtailed. Often justified by prejudices entrenched in society as tradition, such a school of thinking invariably defines certain gendered roles that women are expected to carry out. Even in the most progressive of settings, there are often a series of microaggressions that attempt to control and influence behaviour. They often remind women of their traditional, restrictive duties such as child rearing or taking care of the household. 

Across India, most societies follow a patrilocal residence pattern. Under such a system, a bride must move in either with the groom’s parents or into a house near the husband’s premarital residence. This practise is inextricably linked to the sexual division of labour, as the role of a married woman is confined to the home and her new family. Consequently, it is understood that a ‘value’ is attached to a woman on the basis of how well she can perform her duties. This is not dissimilar to men that earn more being held in higher regard in society and is arguably, a byproduct of capitalism. Yet, the work of a woman within the household, no matter how tenuous and stressful, is not taken seriously. Participation in the labour force is often a distant dream with systematic disenfranchisement from basic education and resources being exceedingly commonplace. It is no secret that most parents actively accord preference to the male child, with the hope that his material success will benefit their own. Here, exclusion from the workforce and the prevalence of patrilocal set ups go hand in hand to establish the woman as strictly inferior to the man. It is not unheard of for a female child to be treated as a non-contributing liability, which is passed on from one family to another through the institution of marriage. 

Over time, there have been signs that we are moving towards a freer and more just society. At each step, however, progressive movements are met with resistance, criticism and hostility. The struggle to earn rights that seem intuitive and necessary today has never been easy. Each failure, however, plays a role in shaping how the oppressed fight against the system today. In most cases, protests are undertaken by those that seek to bring about social and legal reform. The evolution of social morality is a slow and tedious process, especially when the change requires the oppressor to give up power. Today, prejudice continues to run rampant and is exacerbated by the populist and majoritarian rhetoric that is commonplace. This does not mean that broader changes in social morality have not taken place. There has been a continued shift away from capital punishment, in light of both empirical evidence that it is an ineffective deterrent and debates over whether the state can be given the right to take away an individual’s life. Irrespective, these changes are not without pushback and protest. An act recognized by some as a social evil is often revered by others. As a result, despite their immorality being seemingly intuitive, social evils are incredibly difficult to rid of. One way to effect such a change is by using the rule of law and the accompanying state machinery. This, of course, requires the state to adopt a paternalistic role and unilaterally decide whether the act in question can be considered a social evil. Due to the populist nature of most regimes, such a step is rare as any move that may alienate the majority or hurt their sentiment is tantamount to political suicide. Yet, leaving aside philosophical considerations, such a move is far from unprecedented. A rare ‘success’ story is the slow, yet steady erasure of the practise of sati.

Despite initially requiring colonial oversight to outlaw, Sati has been close to eradicated in post-colonial India. Yet, as with most barbaric practises justified using religious texts, the ban on sati was hardly unopposed. A petition signed by ‘several thousand Hindus’, countered by reformists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy eventually led to the matter being tabled in front of the Privy Council in London. Common sense prevailed and the ban on the practise, as documented in Images of women in Maharashtrian Religion and Literature, was upheld. Over time, the change in the law did succeed in bringing about a broad change in social mindsets. Even as the occasional Sati is reported in the press and forgotten by the media, the obscurity of the evil in the modern day can, by and large, be seen as a success story. The law, here a blanket ban, succeeded in its attempts to change social attitudes. In this context, as we continue to demand a more just and equal distribution of rights, it is imperative to understand why similarly gendered social evils like dowry refuse to go away in spite of being abolished.

Despite the erasure of sati, the efficacy of any state action that mechanises ‘blanket bans’ on any commodity or practise has repeatedly been called into question. For commodities, the Prohibition era in the United States makes for a strong case study. At the end of a battle taken up by progressives across parties as a ‘battle for public health and morals’, the imposition of a ban on liquor production, importation and distribution was upheld for over a decade. The demand for alcohol, however, continued unabated. Consequently, the liquor industry was taken over by criminal gangs that continued clandestine operations, whilst turning a large profit. Similarly, despite a ban on the consumption of narcotics, the unaltered demand often means that a steady supply does exist, albeit in an unregulated and often exploitative black market.

For social evils, there might be a similar outcome, albeit the reasoning is different. This is where dowry becomes an interesting study. Despite an initial ban in 1961 and subsequent legislation that brought associated crimes into the purview of the law in the 1980s, the practise continues unabated. Though also rampant in rural areas, empirical work has shown that upper caste and upper class families are far more likely to engage in dowry due to the stark inequality in access to the labor force. In cases where the woman is expected to stay at home, she is often seen as a burden being passed on from one family to another. This perverse manner of thinking is validated by the tradition of the accompanying wealth that a bride is required to bring with her. Dowry apologists often justify it as a replacement for conventional inheritance rights accrued at birth, which, prior to the Hindu Succession Act Amendment in 2005, was restricted to the male heir. Since then, there has been continued pressure on women to voluntarily give up their right to ancestral property or ‘haq tyag’. Due to disproportionate access to education and a comparatively meagre understanding of rights, most women are either unaware of their inheritance rights or are unwittingly forced to give them up.

The argument, thus, is that the dowry paid by the father acts as an alternative to inheritance which must now go only to the sons. The glaring flaw is that the actual wealth that makes up the dowry, be it in cash or in kind, is often controlled by the family of the groom. Not only does the practise disenfranchise women from their inheritance, it even fails at an attempt to offer an alternative since it provides no financial independence to the newlywed bride. Instead, we see that it merely perpetuates the idea that the woman is a fiscal liability or a burden that needs to be taken care of. With dowry payments often exceeding annual incomes, it also is tenuously linked to an increasing aversion to having a girl child. Consequently, it can be understood as one of innumerable factors that led to a rise in female foeticide in India. The cyclical nature of dowry, stemming from and contributing to the above mentioned belief, creates an environment where social attitudes are less likely to change. The ban on dowry has been ineffective as many families continue the practise, albeit under the garb of the transfer of wealth being termed as a ‘gift’.

As the practise continues unabated, it is fair to argue that there is now a greater stigma around dowry than ever before. As more and more women join the workforce,  the idea of treating women as liabilities will die out. However, for a large part of the population, gender roles requiring married women to be homemakers continue to be revered. Until the social stigma behind a married working woman is removed, it is unlikely that the idea of financial burdens can be defeated. Yet, it is imperative to acknowledge that this is unlikely to rid the world of dowry either. Prejudiced mindsets are shaped over time by a multiplicity of factors. While addressing one of those might mitigate the negative perception of women, it is unlikely to be enough to rid society of dowry in its various forms. In Spite of the failure of the ban in curtailing the practise, any attempt to bring about a change in social mindsets is met with derision and doubts over potential success. Like any attempt to change regressive mindsets, it is likely to be met with resistance. But, that should not take away from the need to effect the social change that we need in the world today.

Aryaman Sood is currently a third-year undergraduate student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University.


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