Dowry: Decriminalizing X != Supporting X

Having just been labeled a "pro-dowry activist" (ahem) by @Vidyut, I am forced to come out of my blogging shell. Here is her ostensible set of reasons why dowry should be criminalized. I had a brief twitter "conversation" with Vidyut yesterday in which she responded to my saying that dowry should not be prosecuted so long as there is no violence with a "NO". As a general rule, you should avoid arguing with people who are far too liberal with caps locks, but the more marginalized one's position the greater the potential effect of one's writings.

Of course, I write this very aware that pathos will almost invariably win over logos for most readers in such a sensitive debate (and even the ethos part of that Greek trio of persuasive powers is not in my favor on this issue – my XY chromosomes unfortunately assure that). I also do not know the blogger's name, so I shall refer to the blogger by her twitter handle – Vidyut.

Vidyut starts off her piece with this assertion:

Dowry is violence.

Now, I am personally not in favor of dowry. A man marrying for money tells me that he has shown the proverbial white flag when it comes to (a) finding love, (b) earning enough for himself and his to-be family. I can only imagine a few things sadder than that.

But, I do not know how to do a hop, a skip, and a jump from that to saying dowry per se is violence or coercion! Well, if you take money, gifts or jewelry from the parents of the girls – the act of dowry has been committed and no violence has been necessarily committed. Later on in the piece, Ms. Vidyut declares even "honor killings" to be voluntary! What part of a murder is voluntary escapes me. Therefore, we must with great sadness declare Ms. Vidyut's very first statement to be objectively false.

She then says:

Essentially, dowry is a business deal around the marriage of two individuals

Indeed. And as mentioned earlier, I find such deals to be just plain sad. But I am also very sad about infidelity, the burkha system, alcohol abuse and many other issues. That does not mean that a person's right to cheat, cover, drink and so on should be criminalized. I wish such things never happened – but people voluntarily (happily or not) – commit these actions every day. Therefore, again we are left with the question why should the said deal be criminalized. No answers so far. And if the argument is that something should be criminalized because it is criminalized, people need to go back to logic school.

Then she writes how dowry is related to constraining women's choices and female feticide. Correct on both counts. But the problem here is not dowry, that is just a symptom. The problem is that women have been, and unfortunately to some extent still are, (as she rightly mentions) – considered commodities.

But how will banning dowry (even if you ban it a bit more effectively, as her less self-righteous but still not very rigorous post here gives ideas for) change anything substantial on the ground? Let us not forget that dowry has been banned in India since 1961 (as she herself notices) – what has changed in half a century? Not a lot unfortunately.

You cannot effectively ban dowry if the demand for that system persists. With so much black money around, exchanging cash is very doable but even if the bride's family disproportionately pays for the marriage costs – that is also a form of dowry. Stree-dhan and woman's bank accounts are definitely more preferable, but if the argument is being made that violence is far more common than is reported (this could definitely be the case), then even stree-dhan and bank accounts are not safe from "poaching".

Public awareness and more "stings" are all very good, but they can only work to a point. Latin American druglords now use submarines and militia-gangs to reach and penetrate the United States; if richer and older governments cannot social-engineer despite much more resources, can our government do so? No. But yes, laws do have unintended consequences. Section 498a has been declared as "legal terrorism" by the Supreme Court itself in Sushil Kumar Sharma vs Union of India.

More anecdotally (since Vidyut has not deigned to provide us facts either) I have not heard of one dowry violence case in my extended upper-middle class family and friends'circle living in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai – but I have heard of many cases in which wives in marriages at the verge of breakdown (for other reasons) have used various old and new anti-dowry laws to threaten to put her in-laws in jail unless they gave her X amount of money. Feminists may feel frissons of schaudenfreude here, and I share their feeling to an extent, but surely this is not what they intended – poor, uneducated, rural wives still cannot be effectively helped whereas their richer, educated, urban counterparts who are non-victims get to abuse entire families (including other women like the husband's mother, sisters-in-law etc)

At the end of the day, not much is likely to change until women are better educated and financially independent. Then they will have leverage against their fathers, brothers (along with their in-law equivalents) and of course their husbands and to-be husbands.

Until that happens (or until the sex ratio becomes even worse), the father of daughters will give money to the groom's family for various reasons – as a part of the woman's inheritance, as paying for a certain "standard of living" if the woman is not earning, and out of (unfortunately) sheer cultural inertia. Things may "average" out somewhat for parents with a daughter and a son, but indeed not so for those with only daughters, and this is more likely if those daughters do not earn or did not find love themselves.

Those who want to see the end of dowry should re-direct their energies to creating better economic and educational opportunities for everybody, including women, through school choice and free markets.

Else, it would seem they just want to feel good rather than actually do good.

6 responses on “Dowry: Decriminalizing X != Supporting X

  1. Vidyut

    1. “far too liberal with caps locks” = two letters. “NO” out of which, one would be capital anyway as the beginning of the sentence. AND you call yourself tolerant too. Nice.

    2. My name IS Vidyut

    3. “Well, if you take money, gifts or jewelry from the parents of the girls – the act of dowry has been committed” – There is a reason I had linked to the Dowry Act. It defines what it considers Dowry clearly. It is not open to your interpretation at will. At least not with any legal credibility.

    4. Ms. Vidyut declares even “honor killings” to be voluntary! – I stand by this statement. There is absolutely no one forcing people to kill in the name of honor. On the contrary, it is an illegal practice. So, not only is it entirely voluntary, it flaunts laws as well.

    5. That does not mean that a person’s right to cheat, cover, drink and so on should be criminalized. – I wouldn’t make a flat out policy that if one thing is illegal, but should be legal, therefore this can be applied to disregard a serious concern related with homicide.

    6. “Public awareness and more “stings” are all very good, but they can only work to a point.” Sure, it may not work. It is an idea. How it works out is unknown. Its working to a point is also unknown. It may work totally, or not at all, or to a point, or in unexpected ways…. such is life when it comes to ideas in action.

    7. “Vidyut has not deigned to provide us facts either” – It is a post based on psychology. I did not find it necessary to quote well trodden facts. I don’t recall you asking, if you felt they were missing.

    8. “I have not heard of one dowry violence case in my extended upper-middle class family and friends’circle living in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai – but I have heard of many cases in which wives in marriages at the verge of breakdown (for other reasons) have used various old and new anti-dowry laws to threaten to put her in-laws in jail unless they gave her X amount of money.”

    -a You may want to consider that if your family is invariably innocent, and the women are invariably evil, you may actually be considering normal practices that are harmful to women.

    -b At the time of divorce, it is common for a woman to get a portion of the married assets in a house she was a part of as well, unless of course, it is the husband walking out and leaving the home to her. It is in fact sad that the threat of a complaint is required for her to get them. What do you expect? That she live on the streets for the grave crime of not wanting to continue in your circle?

    9. “not much is likely to change until women are better educated and financially independent” – doctors are dowry victims. As are business women, working women, engineers…. it isn’t about education, and financial independence is near impossible to build when a woman IS being exploited for money. Read news.

    10. “Those who want to see the end of dowry should re-direct their energies to creating better economic and educational opportunities for everybody, including women, through school choice and free markets.

    Else, it would seem they just want to feel good rather than actually do good.”

    -a Read news for how educational and financial independence is not necessarily an escape from dowry related abuse.

    On an overall note, an overwhelmingly large number of women are victims of dowry and related practices. Even if you consider men being victimized, as you say – they are alive, and we have courts if they are being blackmailed. On the contrary, there is a steady drip of DEAD women in the news everyday.

    If there is a court bias, it is only in the absence of proof. Most cases have proof. If in an inconclusive situation, I see nothing wrong with a law that seeks to protect one who could lose life over one who could lose assets.

    It is all about a sense of perspective. I cannot explain it to you. It is something that develops.

    PS: Enjoy the CAPS.

  2. Harsh

    Dear Vidyut,

    Thank you for commenting.

    Unfortunately, I cannot reason with someone who considers a honor killing as voluntary. Did the girl being killed in a honor killing want to be killed? No.

    On the other hand, do thousands of Indian women continue to marry knowing very well that some gifts or payments are being given to the groom’s family? Absolutely yes.

    When you can appreciate that difference, we might be able to resume our debate. Else going by your logic that “since dowry leads to dowry deaths in some cases, let us ban dowry”, we would have to ban marriage itself – given how prevalent marital rape is.

    Warm regards
    Harsh

  3. Vidyut

    Sorry for the multiple posts. The Edit link is not working.

    I do consider that when dowry is a reason for thousands of deaths every year, in spite of being illegal, decriminalizing it is definitely a pro-dowry stand, because it legitimizes the practice.

  4. Harsh

    Dear Vidyut,

    I have deleted your comment in which you basically imply that I am not being honest about my anecdotes in the blog.

    And you have indeed called me a “troll” and a “little pro-dowry activist” and I consider that to be unfortunate language. You may not agree. Fine

    Regards, Harsh

    1. Harsh

      There is no other possible deduction of calling an honor killing voluntary. By your logic, all murders are voluntary – “honorable” or not. In that case, we are simply twisting language.