Gender and Urban Space

Dowry Practices and Gendered Space in Urban Patna/India

Chandramukhee, Delhi School of Economics, India and Stephanie Leder, University of Cologne, Germany

1North India is considered as the patriarchal heartland of India, as here patriarchy creates a highly gendered space (Datta 127). The patriarchal system leads to the institutional establishment of gendered practices that reinforce the subordinate position of women and girls in society; it is particularly the latter group who has minimal decision-making power. This becomes evident, for instance, in dowry as one such gendered practice. Dowry refers to the property that is given, at the time of marriage, by the bride’s parents to the groom or his parents under duress, coercion or pressure (Teja 94), through the transactional space created by the grooms’ families. This article investigates how dowry as a social practice creates and sustains a highly gendered and utterly discriminatory space in urban Patna, Bihar.

2In contemporary India, the totality of dowry assets in marital arrangements can be divided into three parts. First, there is a property transfer, called streedhan, as a form of pre-mortem bequest from the parents to their daughter upon her marriage, over which she has, however, no legal control (Goody and Tambiah 85). Second, gifts are part of a ritual exchange between the families of the bride and the groom to symbolize their union. Third, cash is given as “marriage payment” with the explicit understanding that without it the marriage contract will be voided (Sen 78). Strictly speaking, only the last item can be categorized as dowry, which then is not a freewill gift of money or property, but has a coercive element attached to it (Sen 78).

3Marriage practices in societies with dowries are typically monogamous, patrilineal (i.e., class status follows from the husband’s status), and endogamous (Anderson 271). Endogamy is referring to marriages of men and women of equal status or of the same caste. This caste monogamy preserves caste purity. Furthermore, societies with dowries exhibit substantial socio-economic differentiation and class stratification. According to Kodoth (5), the caste system and its related traditions of hypergamy as well as endogamy are responsible for the dowry system to a great extent in India. Hypergamy is a way for women’s upward mobility in the social hierarchy, because they marry men of the same or higher social status. Teja (16) states that when the endogamous restrictions became rigid and prestige solely determined by social hierarchy, hypergamy became the widely accepted form of marriage.

4From a historical perspective, Srinivas (12) traces the origins of dowry to the prevailing ideology of kinship structure, which enforces the caste system as well as hypergamous marriage. In earlier times, only upper castes, such as Rajputs and Brahmins, practiced dowry customs, but with modernization in cities it has now spread to all other groups including scheduled castes, Muslims and also Christians (Sheel 26) and introduces its inherent gender relations into these social groups. In the Hindu lower castes (in this study the Kushwaha caste), men have begun to emulate upper caste customs, which include female feticide, infanticide and the neglect of the girl child that enables them to tap into upper caste economic networks and further upward mobility. Also, with regard to dowry, the earlier concept of streedhan (the Hindi term for women’s property, Gandhi & Shah 52) of primitive societies has taken the vulgarized form of dowry due to the secondary status of women in society. Dowries were paid in accordance with one’s means and almost always constituted a one-time payment (gift) at the time of marital celebrations. Though hegemonic assertions of the past do not persist anymore, their by-product still persists through socialization in North India (Srinivas 13).

5In India, grooms and brides are usually matched in such a way that men marry younger women. An exogenous increase of the population growth rate causes the entry of surplus women from the younger cohort into the marriage circle. Consequently, the average age of potential brides decreases, while their numbers increase. As there are thus very few desirable grooms compared to the large number of brides available due to the age cohort, this results in fiercer competition for scarce grooms and induces an additional upward shift in dowry demands, the so-called “marriage squeeze” (Rao 669). This scenario leads to space for dowry demands among grooms’ families, within the marriage circle, where desire for dowry is used by grooms’ families to create a transactional space, through which they negotiate about the amount of dowry to be paid with the brides’ families. This space is finally used to transfer the dowry property from bride givers to bride takers. Though grooms’ families create this space the bride’s families are drawn into it, as they have to participate in it willingly or unwillingly due to the fear that their daughter might stay unmarried.

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