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For most of my readers, perhaps, the dowry system is a well-known phenomenon that you are really familiar with. If so, you are more than welcome to skip the rest of this diatribe. But for those who aren’t aware, I wanted to give a little lesson. Why did this come up? We met a guy from Holland, who was completely unaware that this system even existed anywhere in the world. He was completely baffled by the explanations that I was doling out to him. The funny thing is that his bafflement in turn completely surprised me. I couldn’t believe there were people on this planet who were unaware of such a popular practice from one of the most populated countries in the world.
Let me start off with mentioning that in the Indian culture, it is expected that the boy will continue living with his family even after his marriage. The idea of moving out on your own is very foreign and still not practiced very much in India. The girl once she is married moves into the in-law’s home. In general, whenever a family in India has a girl, it is a cause for a funeral. Why? Girls are a burden to the family in general. Girls are basically on loan to her family until she gets married – thus, she can’t really support her family once she comes of age.
How does the marriage and dowry system go? Before the girl gets betrothed (engaged) to a boy, after all the match-making customs have been followed and the stars have been aligned, there is a back-hand deal that goes on in the two families. There is a kind of a business deal that the families engage in. The girl’s family decides how much they can afford to give to the girl when she moves to a new home, and the boy’s family decides if how much they are being offered is good enough for them. The dowry can take several forms – in the old ages, it used to take the form of cattle (cows, goats, or buffalo) – something that the family could use for milk, as cattle used to be considered a form of monetary currency. Also they would give stainless steel utensils, or little pieces of gold in the past. Nowadays though, it usually takes the form of cold hard cash and many pieces of heavy gold jewellery. It is surprising even to me how high some of the dowry amounts can go up to. I want to emphasize that the dowry goes directly to the groom’s family. None of it goes to the girl.
If the boy’s family is happy with the dowry, then the transaction is approved, and the marriage goes through. Unfortunately, sometimes the boy’s family was hoping for more dowry (money or such) after the marriage, typically during the course of the first few years of honeymoon bliss. They perhaps knew that the family the girl was from is rich so they bided their time. The fallout happens when the boy’s family is disappointed in the amounts of dowry that they received after the marriage takes place – in that case, there have been numerous cases in India where the boy’s family basically tortures the girl with burns, threats, physical abuse, or mental trauma, until she goes back to her family and asks them for more dowry. In some cases, the girl has been so traumatized that she goes back to her parents, and hopefully, the parents are able to take the girl back without too much shame.
When a girl goes back to the family because she can’t take it anymore, it is cause for shame and degradation. Everyone in society and the family’s circle will look down upon the girl and her family. She will have a very hard time getting married again if she wanted to repeat the experience. By association, the other girls in the family will have a hard time getting married, and the boys in the family will have a hard time getting jobs. In some cases, typically in larger cities and educated families, the girl’s family will accept the girl coming back into the fold. In most rural towns, the girl’s family will not be as supportive. They will try to convince the girl to go back to her new family and will try to collect money or more dowry so they can satisfy the greed of the in-laws. In some other cases, the girl is stuck – she can’t go back to her family as she will not be allowed back, and she doesn’t want to go back to her in-laws. She either has to go into prostitution or some other menial work in order to support herself, and her children if she has any.
One of the first questions that people always ask me about this practice is whether this custom is still practiced in India. It seems to them such an antiquated way of dealing with women and marriage that they assume it was something that was practiced hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Even now, even in the richest, most educated families in India, the practice of the bride’s family paying a certain ‘fee’ to the groom’s family for the marriage still exists. Now for people who are crowing about how India is so modern and how things are changing rapidly, I have some stats for you. Things are not getting better in the dowry department. According to the Campaign Against Dowry website, in 2010 there were 8391 reported dowry deaths, 30% more than in 2009. These are deaths caused due to insufficient dowry paid out by the girl’s family. It could be caused either by the in-laws by burning the girl or other form of torture, or suicide by the girl as she can’t take the abuse anymore. It is shameful to think that this still happens in India at such a high rate.
Now of course, this is not the custom in every family. There are Indian families out there (like mine) where girls are treasured as much as the boys in the family – where the girls are given as much opportunity as the boys to be themselves.
There are cases where the groom refuses to take a dowry (my Dad didn’t take a dowry for my mum 35 years ago).
There are some families which give the dowry directly to the bride, and it is for her to use as she wishes. In some families, the dowry is given so that the newly married couple have a really easy beginning – so they would get a house, a car, a maid, furniture, and other stuff to begin their newly wedded blissful life.
This is just an overview of a long practiced custom in India with so many different layers and reasons, that I couldn’t cover those in a short post. But if you are interested, there are many further readings on the amazing Internet.
I urge you to educate yourself about the custom of dowry from India and if you are an Indian male, not to accept dowry from the bride’s family.
In my opinion, this antiquated custom in all of its forms is degrading to women. I hope within our lifetime this custom will become obsolete.
Some links on the Dowry System in India:
India Parenting – Dowry System
Short Essay On Dowry System
Dowry Violence Against Women
– This post has been published in Ocosingo, Mexico.
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