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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)

In contemporary India, the massive rise of dowry deaths, especially during the 1980s when records began to be kept, paradoxically indexes changing gender relations. That in fact it is precisely because women are speaking out and are publically demanding their rights that we see a rise of dowry murder. This is a bold argument to make.

Veena also suggests we begin to think about cross-cultural comparisons as a way of getting out of ghettoizing this practice of dowry murder. She argues that dowry deaths are forms of extortion. This is about blackmail, bribery and fraud. But we also have to think about dowry in a broader context of why women suffer violence. How do we think about violence in a much broader schema rather than seeking to anthropologize violence and to think about it as cultural, in the way we tend to do when we talk about women in the non-West?

Thank you. I have just come from India where I was talking about my book. There is a lot of interest in the book and a lot of challenge to it. There is no difference from when I started writing it. Everybody knew why women were being murdered. Dowry was the cause and if you tried to say anything else you were making an apology for something that was axiomatic.

So I find myself almost feeling exactly the way I felt when I first started - finding this perfect non-mystery, finding something that had murder in it. You know who the culprit is. The culprit is not a person, it is a whole culture. The idea of indicting a culture - calling it barbaric, uncivilized-is not a new idea. It goes back to the colonial period where the 'civilizing mission', as many of us know it was called, was very much part of that period when justification was needed to conquer strange people in strange lands, take over their resources, create empire. And when for example in the case of the English, the Parliament was very inquisitive because it was just a private company, the East India Company that had gone there to trade. Their only charter was to trade. And here they were, engaging in warfare, making laws, making currency, doing all the functions of a state, which they had no right to do.

And that is why my subtitle is The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, that I began to look at the reasons for all crimes, like wife murders, in perhaps the same proportion in this country as in India, but we don't see it as a cultural artifact. We see it as crimes of passion, economic crime, jealousy, stuff like that. It is never categorized so completely in this box of culture. And it was that box that I tried to pry open. And in doing so, because I am an historian, I had to say now when did this begin? Is this only now? We heard of the first dowry burning in 1984 but is that the first one?

Things like this provoked me and behind it all was my own experience, which I had seen get transformed in the hands of a lawyer into more a question of dowry than the personal anguish that I had been through. That haunted me. That directed this enquiry in a funny way. And in the end after a huge wrestling match with myself, I brought myself to spill that tale. I realized that I was implicated in the very history of dowry murder. Not just as a researcher, or as a witness to the 1980s in India, but also as a participant. And thank God, as a survivor, someone who came away and lived not just to tell the tale but to actually get involved in trying to understand it and put it on a wider canvas.