PUCL Bulletin,

September 1982

Why do dowry deaths occur?

Why do dowry deaths occur? This was the central point of concern of a sociological study by Nalini Singh based on a survey of the marriages of 38 young women, aged 17-24 years, in each of which the wife died an unnatural death, reportedly due to harassment over dowry. She suggested that it is primarily the societal perception of woman being less productive than man that define woman's place in society. This manifests in what she calls "Zero-political Status", and denial of basic civil rights to them. She observes that dowry is a clear affirmation of the fact that one's gender determines one's worth or significance. Since worth is distributed unequally amongst the sexes at birth, worth-deficiency amongst females can be offset by material additives that is dowry. The roots of this worth deficiency of women are so deep-rooted that even the brides who earn more than their husbands are made to feel an obligation to supply dowry goods and services along after their marriage just as are the women who earn nothing.

The dowry deaths, therefore, she observes, do not occur because there is a mismatch between gifts demanded by in-laws and presents received, but because young married women customarily have no political significance in their new families. The continuous demand for dowry is but one of the ways in which the deficient political status is exploited. This deficiency is used to maltreat her in countless other ways too. Therefore, she says, the term 'dowry-deaths' is a misnomer because dowry related harassment occurs as part of a larger mandate to oppress a human with zero-political status. Dowry is hardly ever the single cause of so called dowry deaths. In other words, even if demands for dowry were to be satisfied fully, young women would continue to face torture and harassment in their in-laws homes because of their custom-sanctioned-inferiority that robs them of their basic human rights.

According to Nalini Singh, from the earliest days of a marriage the in-laws ruin the life of a bride on the assumption that the young woman has surrendered her total being to them; she bends over backwards to demonstrate that she has no political status, and slips in the bottom of the authority structure; while her parents reassure her that self-effacement is virtuous in woman. If there is much agreement on women's mute compliance with predetermined norms, then why are our daughters dying in marriage? As revealed by Singh's survey, the truth is that young women do not reconcile themselves to the complete absence of political significance in their affinal family. Yet they simulate absolute obedience, because that is what their fraudulent upbringing recommends. This obedience is taken for the real things by those in authority over them. In pursuance of in-law's perception that the bride's parents owe them an unlimited amount of dowry (or Compensation), they, the in-laws, establish a conduit for this flow through the bride. Stripped of a political locus stand, she cannot oppose this demand on grounds of injustice and appears to exercise either one or both of the two options-one, she succumbs, and procures the demanded goods from her parents (after initially deflecting some of the hard edge of the demand by tolerating physical brutality herself), and two, she does not comply, clothing her stand with the unsurrendered fragment of her persona. It is noteworthy, she states, that many women finally adopt the second alternative at great personal risk, and high emotional cost, and offer sustained resistance to demands for dowry.

This resistance proves extremely provocative to authoritarian family members of the husband's family, not so much because of the monetary deprivation, but because of its real potential for destabilizing the power structure which sanctions exploitative behaviour within the family. The young woman's subdued non-cooperation with the demand for extortion of dowry from her parents might not be the solitary issue on which she resists blind authority, but there might be some other issues, which expose her as opinionated, as for instance, the desire to work or study, despite family opposition. All such actions are regarded as signals of disrespect and revolt. When a young woman, who is a political amputee by tradition, resists prestigious traditions such as dowry, she is a logical candidate for retaliation by the in-laws. Dowry death are a manifest example of this retaliation by the flag-bearers of patriarchial authority. In some cases, the retaliatory wrath of the in-laws expresses itself in murders of the young women by burning with kerosene (most frequent in urban areas) or drowning (common in rural areas). Other methods employed to murder include poisoning and physical battery.


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