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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)

Just to impress you with the drama of what's going on in the Punjab countryside, five years after the British takeover, forty percent of the land changes hands. Now that to me, as a historian, is sheer Bollywood! You can see families getting homeless. You can visualize who is getting thrown out. And these are the conditions that then manipulate a custom which I have called a feminist custom, built by mothers for their daughters. A very reciprocal custom, a custom where the whole village contributes, now becomes an economic burden because you are already in debt but you have to pay for that. Daughters don't count. They are married off very close to puberty. There are all sorts of social pressures that gather and make the moment of a daughter's marriage into a nightmare. It used to be something women looked forward to.

The corollary of this is that son preference is on the increase. It was not invented by the British, it already existed but it will be even more desirable to have more sons because of the economy and of all the cash-paying jobs in the army. The Punjab becomes the biggest recruiting grounds for the British army and it is going to be the largest army in the world. And cash becomes a very important feature of peasant life because they have to pay in cash.

Gold is another kind of currency. You find that sales of land and sales of gold jewelry take on an enormous importance in this period. Gold jewelry used to be decorative. But it suddenly becomes usable by men that it wasn't.

I have linked female infanticide to another which is bride burning. But I spent about a year at a women's resource center. Dowry had already got such a bad name that in 1961 it was banned as a custom. Anyone who gave or demanded a dowry was culpable. You would think it would not be a problem. But astonishingly enough, the first dowry murders are reported in the press in 1984. By 1985 the feminists have had great protests demanding that the dowry ban be changed to a much stricter ban to give the law teeth. It is a toothless law. Exonerate those that give dowries to their daughters but punish those that demand them. So you find that it happened and in fact the legislature was very cooperative and went even further by saying that anytime a woman makes a case saying that dowry was demanded of her, it would be the man who had to prove his innocence. He would be presumed guilty.

What this has done is in a different way underwrite a different kind of silence. Dowry isn't the only thing that wrecks a marriage and makes men violent. We know in this country, where 1,500 women die annually from violence of intimants, that you have this violence without dowry. What happened in my own case and at the women's resource center, it became so much easier to put up a case against dowry than to make any other kind of divorce case. There is a divorce law, but it is very complicated to prove it. Who witnessed the violence, how long was it, was it vicious enough to warrant a separation. By the time you have revealed yourself you may not even win your case. If you just say his mother made dowry demands on such and such day and make a list of consumer goods, which are commonly asked for, you have a case and are very likely to win it.

My book is very convoluted, many summersaults are made. But what I am trying to say is that the dowry ban is actually very harmful because it silences women on every other score. You cannot speak of violence because he was drunk, or he is a gambler, nothing else is showcased as much as dowry. We are getting a very problematic social scene where every case on women's crime of murder is immediately dowry and you get this verdict. We are slurring over all that. I have given several stories that tell a different tale.