Saturday, June 21, 2003

beware of indian brides bearing gifts

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Asia Times in June 2003).

On May 11, minutes before her wedding, 21-year-old Delhi resident Nisha Sharma called the police and reported that her prospective groom was demanding Rs 12 million in cash (US$257,733) in addition to the dowry being given to him. The international media swooped on the story that had made page one of most Indian dailies. In two days, Nisha Sharma was an international superstar. She was in The New York Times, on CNN and on the BBC.

Where she could really have been is behind bars. "Both Sharma's parents and the groom's parents should have been arrested, according to the law, because they had already given in to the demand for dowry, with all those 'gifts' they claim weren't dowry," says Rajinder Singh, a Delhi lawyer who is also on the Delhi Commission for Women.

In India, the punishment for demanding a dowry is imprisonment for not less than six months and up to two years, and/or a fine that is up to 10,000 rupees (US$215). The punishment for giving or taking dowry is worse: imprisonment for not less than five years and a fine of 15,000 rupees, or the value of the dowry, or more.

Photographs show Sharma, 21, surrounded by boxes of electronic goods, including two sets of refrigerators, two television sets and two stoves - one for the groom and one for his brother - that her father had bought for her dowry. Not in these pictures was a new car, also bought for the same purpose. The Rs 12 million cash (US$257,733) being demanded just before the marriage ceremony was in addition to all these items.

Despite the heroic aura that now surrounds her, Sharma isn't against dowry. She didn't seem to have a problem with dowry until that additional demand. In fact, her comments after the case was lodged suggest that if the groom's family had asked nicely instead of slapping around her father, she would probably be now ensconced in her husband's house with her new car and all the appliances - except for the goods meant for her husband's brother. Sharma is being hailed as a modern Indian heroine for having stood up against a patriarchal tradition that treats women as commodities to be bought and sold. She is not.

India's Dowry Prohibition Act has for the most part not failed because it is too weak or because the courts have not enforced it. As Nisha Sharma's case shows, it has failed because Indian society still believes in dowry. The law is moot. Indians don't oppose dowry, they just oppose extortion after marriage. News reports highlight the failure of the law only when women are killed (usually by burning) by their in-laws, when they fail to meet additional demands for money after the marriage. More than 9,000 Indian women are killed every year in dowry-related crimes, and between 1990 and 2000, there was a 38 percent increase in dowry deaths in India.

Couples and their families have to refuse dowry, even in the form of "gifts", if this problem is to go away. Sharma and her family should never have offered a dowry in the first place. If the prospective groom refused to marry her on those grounds, so be it. At an awards function, some women in the audience asked Sharma why her dowry complaint came so late in the game. Her response, "My parents only gave me gifts out of their own will and that cannot be construed as dowry. It was only when they [the groom's family] made additional demands that I put my foot down." Gifts? For the groom's brother as well? What is that if not dowry? Why did all the "gifts" come from the bride's parents, and not the groom's? This didn't strike anyone as ridiculous. The media just lapped it up.

Sharma's story was splashed, and more importantly, followed up, by the international media. In India, where international recognition is worshipped, Sharma continues to be felicitated by women's groups, citizen's groups and political parties. She has appeared at functions wearing a sash that says, "Miss Anti Dowry". No surprise that, in a country where people relate better to their Miss Worlds and Miss Universes wearing crowns and sashes. All the news reports, both international and Indian, gave prominence to the fact that Sharma was a student of computer engineering. No one questioned why an educated woman and her middle class family, who should have known better, thought it was proper and necessary to pay a dowry in order to see a daughter married off - until negotiations went awry.

India has experienced unbridled consumerism since its economic liberalization in the early 1990s, and naturally, dowry demands are escalating. Families disguise dowries as gifts to the newlyweds. Television advertisements for big-ticket items like washing machines, new-fangled refrigerators and microwave ovens, show parents gifting these items to their daughters, the advertisements imparting a none-too-subtle message about what these "gifts" really are.

In this atmosphere, Sharma deserves support, but making a feminist heroine of her (with her television sets and refrigerators,) trivializes an insidious problem that claims lives. And in not highlighting that Sharma and her family are also culpable under the anti-dowry law, the media have willfully worn blinders. Nisha Sharma wasn't ever against dowry. So what's all the fuss about?