Dowry: Tradition or Culture?

by SAHF Team

For centuries, the patriarchal structures in South Asia have enforced a misogynistic and exploitative ‘dowry system’. This system is prevalent among all religious groups in South Asia, and until the present day, this practice occurred in the transfer of gifts or money from the bride’s parents to the groom’s family as a pre-requisite to marriage. Historically, dowry originated from a cultural expectation imposed by patriarchy rather than religious tradition.

What Does The Law State Regarding Dowry?

Dowry has been prohibited under the ‘Dowry Prohibition Act 1961’ in India, along with sections 304B and 498A of the Indian Penal Code. Dowry was also recently abolished in Pakistan. These laws are in place to criminalize any transfer of ‘property or valuable security’ before or after marriage for the purposes of marriage. Despite their enforcement spanning nearly six decades in India, they have been ineffective in certain regions; the practice still continues there and leads to violence against women and their families.

Violence Against Women Due To The Dowry System

Unrealistic demands are made by the bridegroom’s family, which puts a huge financial strain on the bride’s family. Emotional abuse, domestic violence, murder and encouragement of suicide are the diabolical repercussions of this practice. Impoverished families are targeted under the compulsion to wed their daughters and can be forced in a ‘hostage type’ situation to surrender their earnings. Post-marriage, out of dissatisfaction from the dowry, multiple women have been abused by their partners and their families. The abuse include brutal beatings, withholding finances, ostracism from the family and children, and the husband engaging in extramarital affairs. In extreme and isolated cases, the wives may even be murdered as ‘bride burning’.

The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 7,634 dowry deaths in 2015—in other words, 21 women are killed due to dowry every single day. The conviction rate is less than 35%, perhaps due to the cultural and social taboos discouraging women from reporting cases.

Possible Causes Of Dowry In Recent Times

The patriarchal structures prevalent in South Asian society favored the inheritance of wealth to sons over daughters. This led to a highly dependable situation of the wife on the husband for finances. Theoretically, the aspect of movable goods provided women with financial security and independence. This practice was a form of providing inheritance to women by the father, which would be transferable upon marriage. Until recent times, daughters would live a far distance, another village or city, from the father. It was impractical for her to inherit a fixed asset as the daughter would not remain in the presence of her father. Over the passage of time, inheritance in the form of ‘dowry’ was introduced to answer this dilemma.

Despite the idealism of dowry, the groom’s family deprived the bride’s financial independence that arose from the dowry. Many families began to exploit this practice , which had initially arisen to favor the financial independence of brides, for their own financial gain.

To address this issue that had arisen around the colonial times, the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, provided daughters with equal inheritance rights. This act intended to eradicate dowry, by firmly stating the inheritance of property after the death of the parents. Despite this law, the practice of dowry continued as a ‘premortem parental inheritance’ at the time of marriage, which prevented women from inheriting the family estate.

In modern times, the practice of dowry is solely due to: blind continuation of social practices under the false garb of ‘religion’, exploitation intended by grooms and their families, and the greed of property inheritance by sons. This practice does not deem fit for modern society, in which technology, transport and judicial systems enable women to inherit parental assets and property.

Dowry In South Asian Indigenous Traditions

(a) Historical Context

Based on eyewitness accounts in Classical and Medieval India, the practice of dowry is almost completely absent. As recorded by Arrian in the books ‘Invasion of Alexander the Great‘ and ‘Indika‘, circa 300BC, dowry is completely absent in South Asia with a focus given to the beauty and interpersonal features of the bride. The Persian scholar Al-Biruni (studied in India from 1017 – 1033AD) noted the concept of a ‘bride-price’, which is presented by the man in possibility of obtaining a wife did exist, but there is no concept of dowry in the 11th century either. Al-Biruni mentions the legal inheritance of a daughter from her father. This was taken with her at the time of marriage, but this is not equivalent to dowry because it is not demanded by the groom and it is under the sole possession of the bride; it is solely concerned with the daughter.

(b) Traditional And Cultural Context

To examine the presence of dowry in the Vedic period, one has to consider the texts of the indigenous traditions of South Asia. There is a great deal of discussion regarding the different types of marriage and their rules in the Dharmashastras. During the Vedic Hindu period, a freedom in choosing partners is seen for all sexes and genders, including women. 

The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma-Vivāha’, in which the daughter is married to the groom by the consent and participation of her parents. Gifts are mutually exchanged between both parties, and the woman is given her share of inheritance at the time of marriage by her father. However, this is not truly dowry in any sense because these gifts are supposed to be kept at a minimal, and it was often a mutual, consensual exchange. Even in the highly conservative Manusmriti, it is stated, ‘putrena duhitā samā’ (9.130) – daughters are equal to sons. An equal claim on inheritance is proposed for both sons and daughters on parental property in the same chapter.

Furthermore, the personal property of the mother is alone to be inherited by the daughter, not the sons – mātustu yautakaṃ yat syāt kumārībhāga eva saḥ (9.131). The Nirukta, concerning the etymology of Vedic terms, states that from the beginning of creation, Manu (the believed progenitor of mankind) had declared the equal inheritance of ancestral parental property amongst the sons and daughters. There are discussions on ‘Strī-Dhana’ in many Dharmashastras, which refer to the ‘wealth of a woman’, which is to be owned solely by her. This is either in the giving of assets by the father during marriage, or the ‘bride-price’ given by the groom to the prospective wife.

In other types of marriage, there is a mention of ‘shulka’ or ‘bride-price’, contrary to dowry, which is offered by the groom in ‘exchange of the bride’. The ‘shulka’ is primarily for the honouring of the woman (3.54), and become the ‘Strī-Dhana’ of the woman. It is not to be benefited from by the family nor the relatives of the woman. The Hindu Dharmashastras condemn the exploitation of any form of ‘Strī-Dhana’, dowry or bride-price:

strīdhanāni tu ye mohādupajīvanti bāndhavāḥ |nārīyānāni vastraṃ vā te pāpā yāntyadhogatim || 52 ||

Those relatives (including those of the bride and the groom) who, through folly, live upon the bride’s properties—even the bride’s modes of transport and clothes—are sinners and fall into the lowest state.—(3.52)

The post-Vedic period witnessed the degradation of the ‘shulka’ practice, and these types of marriages were defiled as the ‘Asura’ (demonic) forms of marriages in scriptures.

na kanyāyāḥ pitā vidvān gṛhṇīyāt śulkamaṇvapi |gṛhṇaṃśulkaṃ hi lobhena syānnaro’patyavikrayī|| The woman’s father, if wise, should not accept even a small gift in the exchange of his daughter; if accepted, the man becomes a ‘child-seller’ (3.51).

As seen in the Dharmashāstras, the insistence on the protection of ‘Strī-Dhana’ was paramount, however the concept of dowry is glaringly absent. Even in the past, traditional figures in Hinduism, including Kanchi Mahaperiyava, condemn dowry as violating core Hindu tenants and refused to attend weddings where this practice was adhered to, which puts into focus the origin of this practice due to patriarchy instead of indigenous scripture.

Concluding Remarks

In this article we can conclude the following:

  1. Despite the laws prohibiting the practice of dowry, violence towards women on its basis is still in occurrence
  2. Historically and as per the Dharmashāstras, the practice of dowry was extremely uncommon. ‘Strī-Dhana’ (woman’s wealth) arising from inheritance at marriage or gifts given by the groom (Shulka) were commonly observed
  3. The modern practice of dowry and its evils are not supported by the indigenous traditions of South Asia. An active effort must be made to eradicate it.

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