Dowry remains India’s abiding shame
In the run-up to the International Women’s Day, it’s good to celebrate the undeniable gains on our road to gender equality. But it’s also worth remembering just how far we have to go — and how little has changed.
Her name was Ayesha. She was 23, worked at a bank and was hoping to complete a master’s degree when she chose to end her life in the Sabarmati river. The police have arrested her husband, Aarif Khan, who she married in 2018, and charged him with abetment to suicide.
Rashika Jain was 25 and had married businessman Kushal Agarwal at a grand destination wedding in Jodhpur a year ago. On February 16, she was dead from a fall off the third floor terrace of her in-laws’ home in Alipore, Kolkata. The police have filed a first information report against Agarwal. In both cases, the women’s parents have alleged harassment over dowry.
A consumerist, post-liberalisation economy now drives the marriage market — destination weddings, designer jewellery and, at the very least, a DJ-wale bhaiya even in small towns and villages. Much of this is paid for by the bride’s family because it’s “tradition”. But even as gifts, how do you separate an outright demand from what was given under social pressure?
Six decades after the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, the continuing prevalence of dowry remains India’s national shame. The 2019 National Crime Records Bureau data tells us that a woman is subject to cruelty by her husband and in-laws every four minutes. Every 73 minutes, there is a dowry death — 23 bodies a day. Yet, when was the last time you saw public outrage over these numbers? It is possible that these are now so routine, that we don’t even react.
In the 1980s, at the height of these “kitchen accidents”, two mothers, Satyarani Chadha and Shahjahan Apa, turned a personal tragedy, the murder of their daughters, into a public crusade, leading to changes in the law. By 2014, public sympathy had waned and the Supreme Court called Section 498A, the cruelty section, among the “provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives”. Notwithstanding the misogyny of “disgruntled wives”, men rights activists are voluble when it comes to the “misuse” of this section, but inexplicably silent on dowry itself. Dowry is the issue that everyone, even government and social workers, has forgotten. Ayesha’s death led to a welcome break in the silence as Hyderabad Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi said: “Irrespective of which religion you belong to, I strongly urge everyone to end this greed of dowry.”
There’s one good reason for bringing dowry back into the forefront of the gender agenda. A study found that states with the highest increase of dowry deaths also have the highest decline in sex ratio. In other words, in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where dowry is rife, it does not make economic sense to have a girl child.
In the run-up to International Women’s Day, it’s good to celebrate the undeniable gains on our road to gender equality. But it’s also worth remembering just how far we have to go — and how little has changed.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal