Imagine a close family friend of yours is about to get married. Everyone is extremely excited for her, and the groom-to-be seems like a great match for her! Your family is preparing to buy a gift for the wedding when all of a sudden, you get news that the engagement is called off. Even though everything seemed perfect, it turned out that the groom’s family was demanding the bride’s family to pay them a huge sum of money if they wanted to marry their daughter to their son.
While this situation may seem strange and unlikely, it is a reality for many women around the world, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East. Even though the practice is banned in many countries, including India, Pakistan, and Nepal, many brides and their families are still expected to uphold this tradition. This practice, known as dowry, not only continues illegally in many parts of the world, but is still legal in some countries, and can severely impact women and their families.
Definition of Dowry
Dowry is a payment made from a woman to her husband’s family upon marriage. It can take the form of money, property, or estate.
Dowry has been a part of many cultures throughout human history. Even Babylonian history shows evidence of the practice. While there was also bride price, which is a payment made from the groom’s family to the bride’s family, it often got absorbed into the dowry. Dowry was also practiced in Ancient Greece and Rome. In Europe, dowry was very common until around the early 1500s. Dowry was not common in Indigenous American societies, where there was a mutual exchange of gifts. However, it was largely introduced with English and other European colonization. By the mid-18th century, the practice began to fade away.
In South Asia and the Middle East, the history of dowry is much longer and continues today. In India, for example, dowry began in medieval times and eventually came to be a way for families to up their social status and wealth. It was later mandated during British rule. In 1961, India made the practice illegal, but it is still widespread, especially in the north.
Dowry is also common in other surrounding countries. In Bangladesh, bride price was actually replaced with dowry in the 1960s, and the practice is thriving today. In Pakistan, there are laws that have been enacted to restrict dowry, but most of them are unenforceable. In Afghanistan, daughters are often arranged to be married while they are still young and dowries can be incredibly high. In the UK, dowry is legal and commonly practiced among families of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent.
Dowry is not just a cultural tradition, but often has harmful implications for women. Dowry reinforces degrading messages about a woman’s worth, which is often equated to her dowry, fostering a patriarchal culture. It can put women and their families in a compromising financial position, especially when the groom’s family uses their leverage to demand high prices. This is especially harmful for women with disabilities, as higher dowries are often demanded in these situations. Sometimes this can even lead to harassment and physical violence. These dowry-related crimes, known as dowry violence, are becoming increasingly widespread in some regions, including India. When women do not provide enough dowry, they are attacked, often with kerosene or acid, or become the subject of sexual violence. This can affect them for life and even be fatal. The perpetrators of these acts are often not prosecuted, and deaths of women are usually framed as accidents or suicides, so they do not receive justice.
Moreover, dowries encourage child marriages, as families often try to marry their daughters while they are young to evade higher dowries. This keeps young women from attending schools and keeps them unempowered and impoverished. In some cases, families will abort girls for their gender or let them die after being born because they are seen as too heavy of a financial burden.
Though the issue is not as global as it once was, it still degrades women and puts them in dangerous situations. It disproportionately affects underprivileged women and women of color, whose issues are often ignored. If we want to fight for feminism and equal rights for women, we must focus on causes that affect women of all backgrounds.