Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Synopsis

The Hindu custom of dowry has long been blamed for the murder of wives and female infants in India. In this highly provocative book, Veena Oldenburg argues that these killings are neither about dowry nor reflective of an Indian culture or caste system that encourages violence against women. Rather, such killings can be traced directly to the influences of the British colonial era. In the precolonial period, dowry was an institution managed by women, for women, to enable them to establish their status and have recourse in an emergency. As a consequence of the massive economic and societal upheaval brought on by British rule, women's entitlements to the precious resources obtained from land were erased and their control of the system diminished, ultimately resulting in a devaluing of their very lives. Taking us on a journey into the colonial Punjab, Veena Oldenburg skillfully follows the paper trail left by British bureaucrats to indict them for interpreting these crimes against women as the inherent defects of Hindu caste culture. The British, Oldenburg claims, publicized their "civilizing mission" and blamed the caste system in order to cover up the devastation their own agrarian policies had wrought on the Indian countryside. A forceful demystification of contemporary bride burning concludes this remarkably original book. Deploying her own experiences and memories and her research at a women's shelter with "dowry cases" for almost a year in the mid-eighties, the author looks at the contemporary violence against wives and daughters-in-law in modern India. Oldenburg seamlessly weaves the contemporary with the historical, the personal with the political, and strips the layers of exoticism off an ancient practice to show how an invaluable safety net was twisted into a deadly noose. She brings us startlingly close to the worsening treatment of modern Indian women as she challenges us to rethink basic assumptions about women's human and economic rights. Combining rigorous research with impassioned analysis and a nuanced treatment of a complex, deeply controversial subject, this book critiques colonialism while holding a mirror to gender discrimination in modern India.

Excerpt

In 1984, on a quiet spring afternoon in New York, the phone rang in my study and a television journalist asked me if I knew anything about “bride burning” or “dowry murder” in my native India. I did not, but I did offer some thoughts on sati, or widow burning, along with a reading list. No, the journalist insisted, an Indian documentary on this issue was to be aired as a segment of an important national weekly news show, and the television channel was looking for informed comment. My own memories of an experience in the summer of 1966 were still surprisingly fresh, but they appeared dated and so utterly unconnected with dowry that I said nothing. That denial and the subliminal provocation instigated this book.

I confess to having repressed my private suspicions about this wholly new yet chillingly remembered style of violence that appeared to have become a trend. the culprit (or culprits) used kerosene oil and a match to burn the woman to death; the motive was easily ascribed to marital conflict arising from demands for more dowry, in cash and/or as valuables, by the new husband and his family. These violent events were reported as kitchen accidents, involving the rather dangerous pressurized kerosene stoves in common use in Indian kitchens, from which other women, not just brides, and men as well frequently sustain accidental burns. Only in a very few cases of a young wife's death were the police actually summoned to the scene to file a report. Until the early 1980s, few such cases were investigated, and in even fewer was murder detected. Certainly no one had been convicted of the crime. Because violence in the home, even murder, was unofficially part of the private sphere, suspicion, innuendo, and speculation whispered in private conversations seldom became evidence in a court of law. There would be no reliable witnesses, since the mother-in-law was usually implicated as the perpetrator, often with a sister-in-law or even the husband himself as accomplice, and the crime occurred behind closed doors.

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