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Fighting dowry oppression in the Indian community

JOGINDER BAINS explains how this feudal, patriarchal institution that disowns and oppresses women is still justified today in India and Britain, why it is so wrong – and how the struggle against it can move forward

IT’S frequently argued that dowry is the way of giving a daughter her share in the parental property. Is this the case? Does it represent the daughter’s share — or it is a practice that disinherits her?

Though there is no historical evidence available on the origin of the practice of dowry, traces of it are found in ancient traditions in all societies, cultures and religions.

In Britain, for example, women were expected to pay a handsome dowry in exchange of husband’s family name and his title.

A woman’s property was transferred into her husband’s name and control — and law required her to live at his mercy and be his dependant.

Thankfully this custom remained a norm only in upper classes of the feudal era and thus it did not become a distinctive part of the wider British culture.

The law requiring a husband to own and control his wife’s property was repealed in 18th century and the debilitating and degrading practice began to die out completely.

In contrast, British law requiring husband to own his wife’s property was tightly observed in colonial India.

Giving and taking dowry became a significant part of Indian culture, a ritual of the marriage ceremony in all social classes. A custom exacerbated by the British colonial masters has become a curse in the Indian society. This gifted legacy of the British empire has become a tight hanging noose for Indian brides.

Dowry is part of wider patriarchal and feudal values, a tradition practised in India to disinherit daughters. It is not a daughter’s fair share nor is it a way of compensating her for her lack of inheritance rights.

Unlike a son who is coparcener for life, a daughter’s membership in her natal family ends at the time of her marriage. Thus she losses her right to inherit. So, this is considered to be appropriate occasion for her to get whatever she can.

The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 has given daughters an equal right to be coparceners — but deeply-rooted cultural norms and values do not allow them to enjoy or claim this human right.

The gifts given at the time of marriage by the bride’s natal family to her and to her marital family do not equate the value of her share in her parental property and neither does it match the value of what her brothers will inherit.

Only a fraction of her dowry, outfits and jewellery, is for her individual use while the rest of the gifts go to her husband, her in-laws and to his extended family.

The household items, such as furniture, a car, fridge, TV and so on, are used by whole family. Money spent on the wedding celebration, decoration and feast is also calculated as part of her dowry.

In Indian law, giving, taking and demanding dowry has been outlawed and is a crime under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961. If proven, the perpetrators can be sentenced up to seven years in prison.

The law was passed to protect brides from the dowry-related violence they have been and are subject to by their husbands and in-laws who make dowry demands of gifts and cash, before, at and after the wedding.

Unfortunately, either the law is ignored or has not been appropriately enforced because the tradition of dowry is embedded so deeply in Indian culture that the law enforcers — the police, judges and the politicians — themselves are guilty of breaking it.

Furthermore, a dowry does not have to be demanded — it is expected — and is calculated according to the socio-economic status of bride and groom’s family, his education, income and profession.

The bride’s parents are as eager to give one as her in-laws are to take it. They fear the perceived disgrace in the society should they send off their daughter empty-handed. Moreover, they believe that by giving gifts to the groom and his family they are buying happiness for their daughter.

If her parents are unable to meet the expected or demands, the bride becomes subject to humiliation, is abused, deprived of food, is tortured, beaten and even killed — often by being burned alive.

Unable to bear the torture and for lack of support from her natal family, some brides see no escape and opt to commit suicide.

For Indian parents, daughters are seen a liability and they believe it is their responsibility to marry her off and ensure she stays married at any cost.

Fearing their honour might be blighted in society if their daughter returns home, they, instead of supporting their daughter and helping her to build an independent life, continue to meet the never-ending demands and expectations.

Some harsh realities of the practice of dowry in Britain were brought to the attention of Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) in late 1980s and early 1990s.

The brides and their parents discussed the victimisation, torture and abuse from the in-laws. Owing to absence of legal framework to deal with such cases, the British police were unable to record or deal with such cases. The IWA, therefore initiated a campaign for a dowry prohibition law to be passed in Britain.

Unfortunately the campaign lacked evidence due to domestic secrecy of the tradition, thus, it died down. Many charitable and community organisations have recorded hundreds of cases of dowry-related violence, but due to lack of understanding of the systematic practice of dowry, British police have failed to collect data.

The police, health professionals, social services and immigration officials have been urged to look out for such cases. The police chief agreed in 2020 to create a system to make dowry-related violence part of the police training.

The purpose of dowry is to degrade and victimise a woman so that she submit herself to a subordinate position and be grateful.

The psychological warfare is part of the strategy to ensure she lives in fear for her whole life. We must campaign against it and to make it a thing of the past as was done in 18th-century Britain — and instead ensure that women are given a right to an equal share in parental property.

Argument for a right to inheritance

In contrast to dowry, inheritance is a legal right granted by the Hindu Succession Act 1956, the amended Hindu Succession Act 2005 and by the Indian Constitution.

The British Inheritance Act 1975, with strict guidance when parents wish to disinherit a child for their assets, protects the rights of both men and women to inherit parental property. The British Equality Act gives added protection to gender equalities.

Unlike dowry, the ownership of property empowers women to lay a strong foundation for them to be more resilient, have better choices and bargaining power in their lives. More importantly, it removes the cycle of dependency on male members of the family.

Property ownership is not just a piece of paper that has a woman’s name, it is a sense of pride, respect, dignity, identity and a right to enjoy full citizenship.

The ownership of land and other resources reduces violence against women, as is found by a study in Kerala that only 7 per cent of women who owned a house and land experienced physical violence compared to 49 per cent of women who had neither.

It reduces gendered poverty and gives women autonomy to choose or negotiate where they would like to live and to break the tradition of having to move in with their marital family.

Unlike dowry, ownership of land and property enables women to lead an independent life and has a power to break the cycle of oppression and subordination. It is a tool to uplift women’s socio-economic position in the society they live in.

Unfortunately, due to culturally embedded values and norms of the patriarchy, many Indian women are deprived of their legitimate inheritance rights and they are forced to live without the security of owning land or other assets that are enjoyed by their brothers.

Despite the clear legislative directives, parents leave their property to their sons who are valued more than their daughters and are expected to care for them in old age.

Women are pressurised by the family and wider society to give away their rights in favour their brothers. Severe violence and methods to disown and to ostracise are used against women to sustain inequality and to dissuade them from claiming their legal rights.

It is highly likely that Indian parents, even the younger generation, are not aware of the legal requirements of British inheritance and equalities laws.

Actions to take

The patriarchal culture of disinheriting female children is an evil. It violates the law and human rights and should have no place in the 21st century.

A campaign must be initiated to uproot the feudal and patriarchal practices that subjugate, oppress, suppress, exploit, devalue and push women into a subordinate position. The campaign should aim to shift the mindset that forbids women from exercising their legal right to break the cycle of gender bias.

We must help the Indian community in Britain to be aware of the law of the land and support women in particular to gain knowledge and support them to assert their rights to inheritance.

We must campaign for a dowry prohibition law in Britain and aim for a stronger strategy to ensure official policy is practised.

Parents must stop humiliating their daughters by asking them if they wish to have a share in their property — give them their fair share as you do to your sons, to whom you do not ask such question. Brothers stop disenfranchising your sisters who grew up with you, love you and care for you.

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