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Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 18, 2002)

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 18, 2002)

Veena Oldenburg, Professor of History at the City Univesity of New York Graduate Center and Baruch College

Anupama Rao, Assistant Professor, South Asian History, Barnard College (Interviewer/ commentator)

I first encountered Veena's work as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She had written an essay called "Lifestyle as Resistance" on the courtesans of Lucknow. In that piece, she argued that courtesans had formed a kind of "women's culture" that allowed them forms of pleasure and protection that was invisible to the world outside. Rather than being victims, or stigmatized members of society, courtesans were actually economically empowered women. They used language-- jokes, ribald commentary, poetic forms-- to critique society. We must remember that courtesans were highly skilled performers, women of high cultivation who were both lauded for their skills and derided as "common prostitutes." As new ideas about respectability and propriety came to be enforced by men, courtesans lost their privileged status. Veena's article took colonial history seriously. She asked what kinds of changes had been affected by British colonialism, to think about how the terrain of the private had come to be radically reconceptualized. Especially over the course of the 19th century. Veena spoke about a group of women not usually talked about, and made colonial history relevant to contemporary issues.

I see many connections between that work and Dowry Murder, especially the argument that women's position in society has to be historicized, that practices that once enabled women might have been transformed now into ones that oppress them.

Veena's is a very very brave book. It is quite a radical attempt to rethink the history of dowry, to rethink what we have come to understand as a specifically Indian practice. And to think about dowry itself as having a history. She writes against anthropologists who assume these practices are timeless. There is also an engagement with contemporary women's groups, with feminist women. And she draws on interviews she conducted during that time with women who were coming to Sahali to claim sustenance as victims of violence. This is really a book that tries to connect the academic with the personal.

Let me say a bit about Veena's book before I go on to say a few things about the broader debates in the field of South Asian gender/sexuality studies that I think Veena's book contributes to.

Dowry is a form of property, but it is a specific kind of property that a woman brings with her when she gets married. Land, cash, jewellery were perhaps more traditional forms of dowry - "dahej" or "daaj," as it is called in the Punjab, where this book is located. Nowadays consumer goods- everything from refrigerators to two wheelers- have become more typical as forms of dowry, as the Indian economy has liberalized, and the lower and middle classes have been caught up in the consumption craze.

Since the Indian feminist movement was formed during the 1970s, dowry has been a vexed and hotly debated topic by Indian feminists. Dowry deaths or "bride burning" generated a great deal of media publicity during the 1980s, with evidence of women being set alight in kitchens often with their husbands and their in-laws (usually mothers-in-law) actively participating in the crime. So what we see is a cultural practice, that of dowry, coming to be recognized as a criminal offense based on new ideas of rights, freedom, and empowerment.

The argument of the book is that in pre-colonial Punjab, women participated in local economies, were co-partners in landholding arrangements. British attempts to rationalize the economy meant that they homogenized and codified laws, especially those regarding land tenure, and in that process women became invisible, they became dependants on men. So colonial law, what we historians have tended to call Anglo-Indian law, in fact enabled a more masculine economy to emerge. Boys also became more important in this economy, and the higher social worth of boys meant that dowry became a sort of economic transaction through which the groom's family made demands on the bride's family- i.e., we are taking care of her, she is less worthy, she's not capable of working in a commoditized economy, et cetera. So dowry by the 1850's went from being a way of showing the appreciation a family had for their daughter to becoming a demand.

As the colonial economy was commoditized, women were as well, through the dowry demand. Systems of reciprocity, the fact that villages would come together to give a woman gifts, et cetera, gave way to contractual systems leading to chronic indebtedness; women were left without legal entitlements.

So Veena is trying to open up the issue of dowry as an economic transaction and not as something that is merely cultural and sequestered in the home.