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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Dial D for Murder

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, feminist groups across India were confounded by a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon: the incr...

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
August 3, 2003

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, feminist groups across India were confounded by a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon: the increasing demands for dowry, and the deaths, usually by fire, of young women whose families were unable to meet the in-laws’ demands. Where, activists asked themselves, were these demands coming from? What had changed in recent years to give rise to this ‘evil’? Was this a phenomenon particular to Punjab or Punjabis (where dowry first seemed to have reared its ugly head)? Was it, as they learned more about it, a middle-class phenomenon? Did it have anything to do with urban migration? Or with Partition refugeeism-related greed?

Later, the questions changed to include the anomalies and paradoxes that surrounded the deaths of these young women. The burns wards of hospitals were — and even today are — full of ‘brides’ with burns that will see no cure. Why were so many being killed? Was dowry, and dowry murder, just the flip side of female infanticide? Why were there so few convictions? And why did women almost always deny their husbands’ involvement even if it was clear that they were centrally implicated?

Given the speed with which dowry spread across class, caste, religion and region, and the fact that it has been such a major concern of women’s groups, it is surprising how little literature there is on it. A small range of academic works jostled with the more activist analyses — both in short supply — each trying to explain the phenomenon from its particular point of view. Oldenburg’s book attempts, perhaps for the first time (with the exception of Srimati Basu’s book on law), to bring the two together. Whether or not one agrees with the conclusions, this is a work that deserves to be read.

Tracing the ‘origins’ of dowry from the scriptures, marriage rituals and Manu’s law books, Oldenburg looks at how it changed shape under the British. Gender relationships in Punjab (the main focus of her study) were transformed as a result of colonial land and revenue policies. This, and not some inherent cultural lack, was what led to the worsening of the status of women in the Punjab.

Oldenburg shows how dowry is a catchall term that covers a multitude of sins. The actual malaise lies much deeper, in the many silences, particularly around the area of sexuality, that surround women’s lives. As her own story — an integral part of her text — shows, the violation of the young bride’s body not only by her husband but also by other male members of the marital family, can lead to situations where young women are killed if they represent a threat to this privilege, or they kill themselves. A telling encounter with an American journalist recounted at the end of the book shows the woman’s surprise that the ‘dowry cases’ she has examined are really different kinds of violent deaths of women, no more or less exotic than domestic violence in New York or London. This comment goes some way towards clearing the fog that has surrounded this issue, for the question is often asked why mothers-in-law are so central in dowry killings, why women, in fact, turn against women. Implicit in this story is the truth that in making the mother-in-law the ‘fall guy’, so to speak, patriarchy has once again found a way of protecting its own.

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