Growing up in India, my sister and I used to play a game of, “What would you do if you had 1 lakh rupees?”
One lakh rupees — about $1,500 — to our young minds was an unfathomably large amount that could buy you the entire universe. The game kept our imaginations active during long car rides and power outages. Our answers were always variations of buying a beach bungalow somewhere exotic where there are no power outages or buying a really fast car.
One day, an aunt overheard us playing this game. She suggested that we ought to save the money for our dowries instead of wasting it on “useless things.”
That sucked all the joy out of the game, and we never played it again. Until a few months ago, when I found myself playing it with my husband, Srini, in our house in Seattle.
This time the stakes were higher, the money was not imaginary, and the choices were less glitzy. We were asking ourselves what would we do with half a million dollars. We had to pick between Srini’s dream of us retiring in our 40s and paying my sister-in-law Priya’s dowry.
According to his elaborate calculation, that extra $500,000 in our retirement savings would allow us to retire 12 years from now — five years sooner than otherwise. But those five years would be punctuated with pangs of guilt for having “ruined Priya’s life,” my mother-in-law warned us.
I am against dowry. But I am also not a fan of ruining anyone’s life.
Dowry is payment made in cash or kind to a bride’s in-laws at the time of her marriage. The amount depends on a large number of factors, including region, religion, caste and subcaste, groom’s education, bride’s skin tone, and the negotiation skills of both the families involved.
Even though dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, it is still prevalent. Actual numbers are not known, but anecdotally about half of the weddings in my family and friend's circles involve dowry.
Still, it’s rarely reported as a crime. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, in a country with nearly 10 million weddings a year, less than 10,000 cases of dowry were reported in 2015. Dowry gets reported only when the groom’s demands go beyond what the bride’s family can afford or when the bride is physically abused or, worse, killed, as cases that gained media attention show.
More often, dowry related-abuses are filed under a law that prevents domestic abuse: in 2015, more than 113,000 women reported abuse by their husbands or in-laws, and 7,646 deaths were classified as related to dowry disputes. That is nearly 21 women killed every day by their husbands or in-laws because their families could not meet the dowry demands.
Is five years of retirement worth taking a chance on that kind of odds?
In April, Srini got a call he’d been dreading for the past 10 years. His uncle in Chennai was calling to talk about getting Priya, who also lives in Chennai, married. He bluntly asked, “How much are you willing to give Priya?”
Within India’s arranged marriage system, finding your own partner is frowned upon. Parents and extended family take it upon themselves to find you potential matches when you reach the marriageable age of early to mid-20s for women and mid- to late 20s for men.
Arranging a marriage is conducted much like a company merger. It is all business with very little room for feelings like love. So much that “love marriage” is often used to refer to a marriage that is not arranged by the family. Nearly 90 percent of the marriages across India are arranged, according to research by Statistic Brain Research Institute.
The Telugu Reddy community that Srini belongs to is infamous for its exorbitant dowry demands. To begin window-shopping for potential grooms, the uncle on the phone wanted to know Srini’s dowry budget. He was hoping to hear at least Rs 4 crores — the equivalent of $585,000.
Srini’s initial reaction was to offer “absolutely nothing” as dowry. Our reservations have nothing to do with parting with such a large amount of money. They were about the sexist and regressive idea we would be supporting.
The lopsided, nonsensical economics of dowry
Every social studies textbook I remember from my childhood contained this sentence: “Dowry is a social evil.” It was mentioned often alongside sati, the practice where a widow self-immolates on her husband's funeral pyre as a sign of loyalty. Sati is more or a less a thing of the past. It has been accepted as a barbaric practice that had to end.
But not dowry. The subtext of “social evil” when it came to dowry is often “social necessity.”
My sister and I went to the same school and had the same teachers, though five years apart. Both of us remember our social studies teacher attempting to justify dowry right after the lesson on “social evil.” The teacher said that she would accept dowry for her son and give dowry when her daughter got married. She said it was basic economics that we were too young to understand.
Instead of being regarded as a crime and a source of shame, dowry has become a matter of pride. It is not as discreet as one would expect with an act of illegal transfer of assets. It is flashy and in your face. It is discussed over coffee at family gatherings. Sons-in-law are often introduced with the price tag they come with. “He works in the US. We gave my daughter 4 crores.”
Sons are seen as assets. There is a strong preference for male children, which has been blamed for years of female feticide. (Side note: Fetus sex determination has been illegal in India since 1994. But the sex ratio in the age group 0 to 6 continues to decline.)
This has left India with a very unbalanced sex ratio. There are 940 women for every 1,000 men according to 2011 census. India has 37 million more men than women, making it hard for men to find suitable brides. In certain parts of the country, wife sharing among brothers has become common.
Low supply and high demand should have tipped the scales in favor of women. Yet the dowry market has not seen any discernible drop.
As research points out, dowry has become an institutionalized and integral part of the Indian marriage. Social and economic realities do little to keep it in check.
Often, education is touted as the cure-all for social malaises and inequalities. But research shows that educated grooms tend to demand higher dowries. Education is reduced to just another factor that determines your market rate.
A good education generally translates to higher earning potential. A well-educated groom could cash that in for a good hike in the dowry. A well-educated woman, on the other hand, might be penalized for it. The conventions in arranged marriages do not permit the wife earning more than the husband. A high-salaried woman would be matched only with a higher-salaried man who commands exorbitant dowry because of his income.
The odds are stacked steeply against women and their families.
Growing up in India, I heard mixed messages about dowry
The messages about dowry we received were very mixed. On one hand, there was the textbook, and then there were all the people who talked about dowry as an inevitable and natural rite of passage for women.
But thanks to our feminist mother and a steady diet of Malayalam movies that featured stories about women murdered by exploding gas cylinders for not meeting dowry demands, I never once doubted which side I was on.
Still, conversations involving our dowries happened around my sister and me all the time.
Growing up in a middle-class family in India, I was made to believe that my parents not having a son was the biggest tragedy that had been visited upon them. Strangers would give my parents a look of sympathy on learning that they had two daughters and no sons. When my father did anything that might be considered irresponsible, his sister would remind him that he has two daughters. He has liabilities. He could not afford to goof off.
Our parents were often accused of failing to put our best interests in focus. Our mother was told by well-meaning elders to rein in our independence and to save for our marriages instead of buying us video games and computers.
It was not uncommon for my mother to get a call from an uncle who just read about a drop in gold prices in the morning paper, urging her to “invest in your daughters’ futures today.”
When my sister chose to stray away from the beaten path of engineering or medicine — the only two career choices children in my extended family are given — strangers warned my parents that they would have to pay more dowry to get my sister married. My sister chose to be a fashion designer. And fashion designing, I learned then, is not very high on the list of preferred jobs in the marriage market.
I have since then wondered many times the reasoning behind the bias against fashion designing, which could be as lucrative as engineering. I’ve come to accept that it comes from a place of fear of the uncommon. We were taught to stick to the tried and tested. Fashion designing was not it.
Just a few minutes into our game of “dowry or no dowry” a few months ago, it was very clear to Srini and me that our personal ideologies and morals were pitted against the fear of letting down the family. This was not going to be an easy decision.
So we turned to the person at the center of all this — Priya — for guidance.
She said she is against the idea of dowry. “I would rather be alone than marry a guy demanding money from my family, ” she said.
Priya is a 27-year-old human resources consultant who is trusted to make important decisions every day at work. But she was not included in any of these discussions about her marriage. On the rare occasion she was consulted, the extended family members were not happy with her attitude. “If I say anything against dowry, they start shouting at me,” she said. She was told that the “grown-ups” would decide the dowry.
She asked us not to advertise a bounty for marrying her.
We thought it was settled, but guilt started gnawing at us. I would often wake up in the middle of the night to see Srini staring at his financial portfolio, willing it to make a decision for him.
My husband’s family expects a lot of him as the firstborn son
Srini and I met 10 years ago at work in Hyderabad, India. We both were software engineers at the same large company. Apart from our workplace and alma mater — both of us graduated from the same college, but our times there did not overlap — we had very little in common. We grew up in different states. Our families did not speak the same language. We belonged to different castes and social circles.
We were the antithesis of an arranged marriage match.
On our third date, he asked me to help him choose interior options for his new house. It scared me. It felt too presumptive, too forward, too fast. I barely knew this guy, and here he was planning the interiors of our house.
Later I learned that he began investing in real estate right out of college. This new house was just another investment, and he was merely asking me for help. He never planned to live there.
He said he was saving to retire in his 40s. I had just started my first job out of college, earning about the same amount as my mother did then after 25 years as a professor. I was enjoying the perks of that generous paycheck. Why would someone want to retire at 40? It sounded bizarre to me.
He was already tired of all the financial responsibilities, he said. For him, retirement was to be the freedom I was enjoying at that moment — enough money to live comfortably with no obligations. He wanted to travel. He wanted to work on fun projects. He wanted to maybe take a career chance that he never could otherwise. His retirement plans sounded much like my plan for my early 20s: Live selfishly for myself.
Srini had more obligations at 25 than I have ever had in my whole life.
There are certain undeniable truths to be being the firstborn son in a middle-class Indian family. One of them is that you are expected to help support the family financially.
“The narrative was always, ‘Study well so you can support the family,’” Srini said when I asked him when he first knew he would have to take on some heavy responsibilities.
It did not come as a surprise to him when he became the sole provider for his parents, sister, and maternal grandparents immediately after he graduated from engineering school. He bought them a house at the age of 22. So much for the millennial’s carefree life.
Two years after we met, we decided to get married. A love marriage.
Before we got engaged, I had made my stance on dowry clear to Srini. He had the same opinion. Srini had conveyed that to his parents. No demands were made.
My parents, however, decided to give me — a person who does not wear any jewelry, not even a wedding ring — a pound or two of gold jewelry. A matter of pride.
“Your father is a doctor and mother is a professor; people will expect you to wear some gold,” an aunt explained.
“What you do today will reflect on your sister and will affect her wedding,” another aunt said.
Weddings are hard, and I had no fight left in me. So I went along with it. I wore an armor of gold. The numerous chains were stitched onto my sari to keep them in place. I never saw that jewelry again after the wedding. My mother-in-law has it safe in a bank locker somewhere.
One of the first conversations I had with my mother-in-law was when she told me that her son had certain responsibilities to his sister. She then asked me to not stop him from fulfilling those.
Years later, I decoded that cryptic message.
She was trying to tell me that when the time came, I should support my husband in paying his sister’s dowry.
But I don’t think I can support a system that turns women into bargaining chips.
The murky origins of dowry — and why it persists today
Scholars cannot agree on the origins of dowry. One of the theories is that it originated from the country’s gendered inheritance rules.
Women, traditionally, did not inherit family’s wealth. Dowry was seen as a way for the family to give women their share. This is often used a justification even today, despite laws like the 1956 Hindu Succession Act, which gave daughters equal rights to their family’s property.
Traditionally, an Indian bride moves in with her husband’s family, a practice that is not uncommon even today. The sons are expected to stay and support their parents while their wives take over the domestic responsibilities like cooking and cleaning. The women’s contributions to household duties are not assigned any monetary value. So she is essentially considered a freeloader unless she pays for her lodging and food expenses in dowry.
Now with more women joining the workforce, this justification falls by the wayside too. But like the gender wage gap seen even in countries like the US, some things are so entrenched in the culture and gender politics that they defy all logic. It is not easy to get rid of them.
India recognized dowry as one of the problems it needed to tackle as a young republic. The Dowry Prevention Act of 1961 and later amendments aimed to outlaw the practice and empower women to report dowry extortions. The law criminalized both giving and receiving dowry, and it recommended a minimum imprisonment of five years and a fine equal to the amount of the dowry.
But the law has a rather narrow definition of dowry that excludes any voluntary gifts when no demands were made. This has given rise to a whole new vernacular when it comes to stating dowry demands without explicitly stating them.
Even when the groom’s family does not make demands, the bride’s family pays a dowry because it is a matter of pride and a symbol of social status.
Instead of outright refusing dowry, often people tell the bride’s parents, “You can give your daughter whatever you want.” And just like that, the burden of defining a “respectable” amount is shifted to the bride’s parents. And legally it would no longer be dowry.
Our dowry dilemma: We’re caught between our convictions and family expectations
Refusing to give dowry would reflect badly on Srini and his family, his uncle warned him. “After all, the bride’s brother is in the US. People will have expectations,” he said.
Srini and I have no pride invested in dowry. In fact, I would be ashamed if we caved in.
“What can we do? Society is like that,” said a friend when I talked to her about my dilemma. She is against dowry, she claimed. But her parents gave and received dowry for her and her brother. She calls it a necessity that she had no say in.
Blaming the society and washing our hands of the culpability is a classic move when it comes to appeasing our consciences. I realized I was doing nothing different. My guilt of letting family down was, I realized, pushing me toward my own justification of dowry.
But I would not be able to live with myself.
Maybe some potential groom will come along for Priya who does not want dowry. Maybe India’s recent demonetization will crash the real estate market and take dowry down with it. Just maybe I’ll be able to avoid a very difficult conversation with my in-laws.
It is unlikely any of that will happen.
Srini and I realized we could not delay this decision any more. So we decided.
We are more than willing to share our wealth with Priya and to provide her any support she needs. But we will not stand behind a marriage propped up on such promises or gifts.
There will be no dowry. Not from us.
Breaking this news to the family is not going to be easy. We are going to be labeled selfish. Distant relatives will place the blame on me, the outsider, for breaking the culture. And Priya may never get married to a man from the same caste and community as her.
But I can only hope that Priya will be happier because of this decision.
“I don’t want a marriage that is a business deal,” Priya said.
Kavya Sukumar is an engineer with the Vox Media storytelling studio.
Design for graphic by Kelsey Scherer.