Kerala, the southern state of India and famously known as God’s own country, is renowned not only for its picturesque beauty but also for its high literacy rate and high sex ratio. However, the state has come under scrutiny recently over the deaths of young Malayali brides, citing dowry harassment. Even while making huge strides in socio-economic progress, education, and health, the mental and physical harassment and eventual death in the name of dowry is a horrifying truth for a lot of young women in God’s own country.
Interestingly, up until a hundred years ago, most of Kerala society had a disregard for the institution of marriage. Except for Namboodiri Brahmins and Christians, Kerala society followed a matrilineal family system, where women stayed back at their natal homes while men often relocated to their wives' homes. There was no attempt towards formalizing marriage or rituals either. Any sort of property or monetary transfer did not accompany such relationships. But, under colonial law, such customary relationship was interpreted as concubinage and not marriage. Social reformers sought to rectify such interpretation by advocating for legal reforms to recognise property rights in matrilineal communities, which were eventually incorporated into the Hindu Code of Bills and became law in 1956. The legitimization of marriage came with a feeling of shame in Kerala society geared by colonial attitudes towards customary sexual cohabitation (“sambandam”).
This legitimization led to a shift from a matrilineal family towards a patrilocal family (where the wife moved to the husband’s home). This shift led to a decrease in women having property rights outside of the family and an increase in dowry practices. Women were being taught mainly domestic skills in education, and limitations were placed on women's work opportunities. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, salaried young men in respectable professions were highly sought after as potential bridegrooms, so much so that the parents of the young man would often demand ‘gifts’, like money, bicycles, and woolly clothes. This was the beginning of the practice of dowry in Kerala. Dowry practices reinforced the social distinction between men and women in a patriarchal society, positioning women as part of the male lineage.
The practice of dowry thrives in a society that values men over women, and a man’s worth is determined by the amount of dowry given. The better the social standing, education, income, and profession of the bridegroom, the higher the amount of dowry expected. However, for the bride, education and employment are completely secondary to domestic skills, age, and physical beauty in marriage. And if she lacks any of these qualities, then a higher dowry is expected. The rationale for the legitimisation of the practice of dowry was considering it as the bride’s inheritance from her natal home. But this is often not the case, as the dowry is usually handed out to the groom or his family, and the bride practically has no control over it.
Educated women’s families offered higher dowries to eligible bridegrooms in fear of being outbid by less educated women. Low-income families offered dowries so that the bridegroom could invest the money in a small business and generate income. In case the bride was unemployed or had a disability, the dowry was considered payment for ‘maintenance’. A lot of families gave dowry so that their daughters could have a ‘happy ’ marriage.
Additionally, if the woman remains unmarried, there is concern that she may "lose her way" or form a "misalliance," especially when it comes to caste. Such a situation may lead to the family losing both "status" and "honour." So, the families offer high dowries to attract bridegrooms. Even though Kerala’s society romanticises marriage, in actuality, it has become just a way of monetary gain for the family of the bridegroom. The bride has become the burden they have to bear to get to their ‘gifts’. In a lot of these cases, the brides face mental torture, domestic violence, and even death at the hands of their greedy husbands and inlaws, who are unhappy with the given dowry.
According to the Dowry Prohibition Act, ” the giving or taking of dowry shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years and with a fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more.” But the enforcement of the law is often lax, leading to the concealment of the crime.
Between 2016 and 2020, 13,678 dowry harassment cases were registered in Kerala. And about 260 dowry-related deaths in the last fifteen years. In many cases, the young wives were starved to death, murdered by snake bites, hung, burned, or committed suicide due to mental torture. This is not just a case for the uneducated rural areas but also a glaring reality among the upper-class, highly educated and rich population of the so-called ‘model state.’
There is a need to look at Kerala’s dowry problem not as individual cases but as a fault in its patriarchal society. Awareness among all its classes should be spread, and timely intervention from the law and stricter enforcement should be ensured. Efforts and social reforms should be made to make a complete shift in the collective consciousness of society to eradicate the social evil of dowry and strive towards gender equality. It will eventually help make marriage into a partnership of individuals rather than being a horrifying nightmare for young women in Kerala.
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