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.

Many historians of gender have also commented on the profound ideological shifts that British colonialism produced in Indian society. These shifts were twofold.

On the face of it, the British colonial state claimed non-interference in matters of religion and custom. So gendered conceptions of tradition were used to confirm earlier forms of patriarchal control. The British ruled through native authority.

At the same time, "tradition" itself was being re-interpreted by the British as fixed, objectified. This was not the flexible, fluid, localized "tradition" that might have given women more room to maneuver. Instead, the colonial state used the categories of "culture" and "tradition" to buttress its own claims to being an improving, modernizing force, disabling or dispossessing natives from claiming parity with their colonizers.

Thus traditional forms of social life were themselves being changed due to modern conceptions of agency, consent, and individuality. [Tanika Sarkar]

Beginning with the debates about the abolition of sati in 1829, issues of female infanticide, questions of widow remarriage and questions about the age of consent for girls, all of these practices came to be legislated by the colonial state. But because the British claimed they were not interfering in customary practice, we see them converting such practices into crimes against humanity, into barbaric tradition.

In opposition to the reigning bourgeois conceptions of the private sphere as a realm of freedom and interiority, the colonial state in India understood the private sphere in the colony as a space of "barbaric" tradition that required redemption. This produced the structure of the "scandal" or the "crisis" as the mode through which the private sphere was made available to public scrutiny. Through law, patriarchy was reconstituted, through a mélange of old and new practices. So criminalizing cultural or traditional practices was the way the colonial state was able to get out of its own proclaimed stance of non-interference. (Lata Mani, Tanika Sarkar, Uma Chakravarty, Rosalind Hanlon)

Briefly put, we might argue that though colonial governance might have rendered certain spheres of Indian society more free by bringing them into the domain of Western progress and improvement, it did so erratically, without great awareness of the contradictory processes it had initiated in indigenous society. Colonial law's intervention in matters of sexual propriety and caste morality strengthened the sovereignty the colonial state claimed for itself, and it strengthened upper-caste privilege and patriarchy.

Importantly, some women were empowered in this process at the cost of other women. (Lucy Carroll, 1856 Widow Remarriage Act). Sexual freedoms gained at the cost of material security. Middle class women during this period came to have respectability, while their sisters, the peasant women, lost their economic rights.

Veena's book opens up the differences between women that were produced by the colonial state.

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.

In the course of this, I learned many things. I am an historian but in doing this particular book I realized that categories that we use as timeless are so dynamic that they need to be stated more explicitly. The word "property." You would think, it is an English word and it has a very specific meaning. I discovered that in India we didn't have "property" as in property as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, as you think of land. And the key argument that I make here is looking at the idea of property as having changed dramatically in the colonial period because when the British took over the Punjab, they did to the Punjab what they had done elsewhere in their Empire in the subcontinent, which is simply take the land (and the Punjab was the wealthiest agricultural land on the planet), and divide it among those who tilled it. And their reason for doing this was not to bring modernity and the notions of private property to India. But the idea was simple: if you assigned every piece of land a determinate owner, you could also fix on that piece of land a determinate revenue. And once you have got the revenue fixed, these assessments of land lasted sometimes three decades -- the same assessment, despite you losing your job or whether there is a draught or a pestilence or a hailstorm knocking out your crop.

These reasons for assigning land as property completely transformed the world. This was the deepest social revolution that colonialism ever performed. They transformed the relations of people to the land on which they lived. Now you had owners, now you had "haves" and "have-nots." In the pre-colonial period, you had rights in land and the right was of use of the fruit of the land. But you did not buy or sell it. The way people controlled the land was to defend it. And taxes were paid to support the defense of the land.

With land becoming a commodity and with men getting a title, you find that quite without a deep dark plot to "do in" women, but because women didn't get title, you find the quiet erasure of their rights. Just imagine this. You are a young woman, you are growing up in your father's house, and when you get married, you go to your husband's house. There is village exogamy in this northwest part of India where women leave their villages and marry men from other villages. Once you go to your husband, you are a dependent wife. Because you are his wife, you can have rights but if he turns out to be a little bit drunk, a little bit violent, a little bit nasty, and throws you out or persuades you to leave by his violence, you have nowhere to go. Because at home, the land had been titled and given to the father and then succession was claimed down to ten levels, each male. I was very lucky to find the records that support this and have documented it heavily to show how the whole notion of a woman, with or without dowry, suddenly becomes a person without property, without home, in fact without rights.

And then women begin a new movement to get their rights. It is very much like free-range chicken. In the beginning, there was free-range chicken. Then we colonized them, we put antibiotics into them, we feed them, and we make breasts larger than the legs, make these wobbly poultry, package them and sell them. And then in the end, we say what is really good for you is free range chicken and if you pay a lot more you can get it in an organic chicken. That's what I feel happened to women's rights. They basically had the same rights as men because nobody owned the land. The land owned the people. And only a move away from it would deny you the rights. And as women did move through marriage, they just took their entitlements to the next village and had the rights to use of the land. But with property, the whole social scene changes. And dowry itself becomes a demand.

The British had a very different system, and this was supposed to be modern and progressive. There were three other fixities. Not only did the male peasant have title to your land, you also had three other conditions through which you held your land.

You had to pay its revenue, which was the case before, but now it was different. Instead of annual or six monthly assessments of your crop, which the previous rulers had conducted, the British conducted a single assessment when they took over the Punjab and they made this good in some areas for 20 years, some 25 and the longest assessments I have seen are for more than 30 years. So it is fixed. You know this is your plot of land. You can't increase it or decrease it except by buying or selling it. You have to pay a particular revenue that is fixed.

Another was that the date you paid the revenue was fixed, meaning twice a year the revenue was due and you had to pay it.

Fourthly, you had to pay this revenue in cash. This adds a great number of days to the agricultural calendar because you not only have to harvest your crop, you have to bag it, take it to the market, sell it and your crop arrives at the market the same time as everyone else's so prices are at an all-time low. You get the least amount of cash from it that you ever would and then you have to deliver it to district headquarters revenue office, with the title, to show that you are paying your revenue bill.

Now you ask, what has all this got to do with dowry violence? What happens is: you have one bad year, one bad season. Suddenly you don't have the money to pay. There is a money lender, the British didn't invent that, but he knows that it's a bad season for all farmers. They will all be coming for loans. He raised the interest rate - I have seen the papers to suggest they go up from 18-20% to 48- 60% interest rate! You are never going to get out of this debt. Furthermore, before the colonial period, all loans were unsecured, meaning you didn't really have to produce collateral to get a loan because your loan was miniscule. Occasionally a cow or a bangle would do the trick. Now the British demand the title to your land as collateral to your loan. You know you won't be able to repay it at that interest and the land will then redound to your creditor and you will become a sort of tenant or quasi-slave because you will be repaying this debt.

So when you look around and say, now what other custom is there in the system that can be used, the only other place to look is at dowry. If you have a son, he has joined the army, he has a salary, he is a plum to get, you will put up his price in the dowry you want. Because in the end, the cash you will get you can buy more land in the market or you can get rid of the debt you have. And dowries, at this time, can become totally fluid. Because your goal can be to buy land because there are auctions every season.

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.

I also think that the greater the violence, I don't see that as disheartening. Violence against women has increased because women are asserting their rights in many ways, walking out. If you think back on African-Americans, as they began to get their rights here, violence against them went up. In India we also have untouchablility, now called Dalit. And Dalit violence is rising even as their presence in the legislatures, as property owners, as at university is increasing. So violence should not just be seen as a negative index. I know I stand a little bit alone in saying this. I do not condone violence. But you have to read violence. And you have to see that it always goes up when the entrenched, vested interests are threatened, they will become more violent. So I actually think of rising violence as a bit of a silver lining and I say this soto voce.

Thank you.

I will recognize people who want to ask questions.

In some books I have read about India and colonial times, the distinction you made about property that is so important doesn't get brought out enough. Could you talk to the previous history of women's rights in India?

I drew a baseline from precolonial to colonial India using the Colonial Record. The British were not just taking revenue, but they were also deciding that Punjabis, who were tribal, martial, were like Scottish clans. They were at great pains to record what the clan custom might be. They collected customs and wrote them down as laws, but they also reinterpreted them. For instance in Punjab, wives are equal. The British called this primitive. They wiped out those rights, so you find that wives without children were given no rights. Through reading these, I could understand pre-colonial rights. This was oral, rendered into a document, mediated through British officers, so you get a very complicated picture.

How did dowry provide security originally?


Since 1656, in China, dowry was used. Even in this country, a girl gets a trousseau. Even at its worst, i.e., dowry murder, those who think it is bad are less than 1%. Some dowry murders might be suicides; I was close to this myself. Some might be genuine accidents. Then there are the murders. But a new bill in Parliament in India is against violence on women and it is not going to have dowry as a part of it. This will make anyone who says my husband was violent, that will come into question; you don't have to get into dowry.

The second thing about your question, in '85 when they reformed the dowry act, a clause said all dowry (of a dead wife) would revert to the giver, meaning the parent, if it is proved to be a murder. So now parents are taking great precautions: if it is cash, it will be a fixed deposit in a daughter's name, with a survivor clause, which says it will go back to the mother. So some of these things will make dowry murder unprofitable. But violence against women will not end because dowry is only a very small part of that picture.