Arranged Marriages and Dowry
We are all familiar with the story : boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl gets married. For the majority of the western world, this is our ideal of a great beginning to a perfect marriage. It is important to realize that while India is very modernized in some aspects (i. e.. they lead the world in student’s math and science scores and produce the largest amount of engineers in the world) they still keep to the tradition of arranged marriages. Marriages formed out of love AKA “love marriages” do happen in India but it is not the norm.
It is an accepted fact that a person’s family will play a role in picking the marriage partner. While to many people raised in the west, this might sound odd. It is important to remember that in Indian society an arranged marriage is seen as an act of love. Since marriage is one of the most important decisions a person will ever make and because divorce is not accepted among most Indians, it is imperative that the marriage choice is carefully thought out and planned. How can a young person make such an important decision on his/her own? Instead, the family (usually the parents) look for certain traits in a marriage partner.
Some desirable traits looked for in both male and female are: matching levels of education, matching cultures, close parental cities, matching religions, and matching vegetarians/non-vegetarians just to name a few. Potential bride-grooms come under close scrutiny for several areas of the matching process. Do they have enough means to support the bride? Do they appear to be men who will make good husbands and fathers? Often, the bride will live with her in-laws after marriage in what is called a joint family. Because of this, the groom’s family is also brought under close scrutiny.
Do the women of the household seem well cared for? Do they have a big enough house for another person and grandchildren? Does the family have a good reputation? Potential brides also come under scrutiny by the boy’s parents. Since it is a commonly held belief that brides are the embodiment of that family’s honor and pride, the girl must be from good family and have good manners. She should be respectable and have no taint on her name. Does she have the makings of a good wife and mother? Does she want to work after marriage or stay at home? There are so many factors to weigh, that I can not list them all.
Often, this turns into an interview process where photos are provided of the boy/girl in question along with bio-data about his/her life and family. If that meets with approval, arrangements will be made for the parents to meet the boy/girl and their family. Traditionally, however, the bride and groom would not even see each other until the day of their wedding. Today, while most marriages are still arranged, times are changing. There is usually a small courtship period where the bride and groom can meet and talk under the careful watch of a guardian.
Also, if either one of the two do not want the marriage, it is likely to be cancelled. Very few family’s today “force” marriages upon their children. Of course, with any society, you have those people who just will not adapt and change. There are places in India where time has not moved forward. For those people, they carry on their lives as their parents have and their grandparents before them. Shockingly, there are still some forced marriages and child brides. Which brings me to the issue of the dowry system…. yes, folks it still exists.
Now before you make that grimace of distaste, let me tell you a little about it. The dowry system has been in place since before the written record and it has been used by parents in every country imaginable, including America in older times. The point of the dowry system was to provide for the bride should something unfortunate occur with her husband such as death or divorce. As you can probably imagine, daughters can be extremely expensive offspring. Parents had/have to make a mad scramble to get enough wealth and material goods together to see their daughter well taken care of by the time she is of marriageable age.
In Northern India, today this age can vary from 18-25 though exceptions do apply depending on socio-economic factors. As you can see, the dowry system was something originally honorable in intention and provided for the independent wealth of the bride in a time when she was unlikely to work outside of the home. Like many customs and traditions, time can alter their original meaning and purpose. While the dowry system is still in place, it has become more of a “bride-price” system.
The parents of a baby girl must come up with a respectable dowry (the term respectable is arbitrary, respectable dowry can be anything from $50 worth of material goods to $50,000 or more worth of material goods depending on the family’s standing in society). If a good dowry is not made, the girl is unlikely to have a “good” match. This again, is mostly arbitrary. A good match for a very poor family might be marriage of their daughter into a slightly better financed family or a good match for a middle income family might be finding a husband that is a doctor or engineer.
As you have probably guessed, there are very few brides who actually retain their dowry after marriage. In the most honorable of families the bride is allowed to keep certain items for her own use such as the bed and cooking pots she is suppose to bring with her and some of the jewelry. She is also allowed control over how the rest of the dowry is kept, spent etc. This situation is a very modern one and in place in very educated households. The most common form of use of the dowry is not meant to be dishonorable and is far more practical for many families.
More often than not, the bride’s dowry gets absorbed into the household for the greater good of the entire family. Perhaps a bride’s dowry may help provide food for the entire family over a lifetime, or allow the purchase of a refrigerator. For many families, they do not see anything wrong in this sort of dowry absorption simply because it aids the bride as well. Furthermore, if the groom’s family is better due to the dowry, the bride will enjoy a better life than perhaps her own mother did. Of course, there is always that dark side.
While these situations are becoming rarer, they still occur often enough to warrant some discussion on them. There are those families who will use the bride’s dowry as their own. Often in these situations, the bride’s dowry will be recycled for the groom’s sisters’ dowry. Sometimes, the groom’s family uses the bride’s dowry entirely for their own means and the bride does not benefit from it all. There have been horrible, true stories of the groom’s family agreeing to one dowry and after the bride is married (and I might add, no longer a virgin) demanding more from the bride’s parents.
Threats of divorce are often used to entice the bride’s parents to give more dowry. In a country where shame is brought down on the divorcee, parents of the bride will do whatever they can to save their daughters this shame. Occasionally, the threat of physical violence is used. There really is no way these type situations can end happily. Even if the bride’s parents are able to scrape together more dowry, they will not be able to continue doing so and in the end the bride is either sent home in shame or sometimes killed in an “accident”.
Often people do not realize the dowry system has repercussions in many different areas other than the obvious horrible one stated above. Given the fact that a girl’s parents must provide a substantial dowry plus try to give her a college education or some form of formal education today, it is not surprising that the number of girl abortions are extremely high in India. Interestingly, India theoretically is a culture which places high value on females. The females of a family are the life-blood, the pride and honor of that family.
It is a very contradictory situation to see such importance placed on females and then to see the abortion rates of female babies sky high. Most college-educated Indians I have spoken to, both male and female, stand in firm objection to the dowry system and see that the twisted form it has taken is responsible for the degradation of women. In these families, girl children are just as prized as boy children and parents are teaching their daughters of their own worth as a human being.