Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Dowry System in Northern India: Women's Attitudes and Social Change

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Dowry System in Northern India: Women's Attitudes and Social Change

Article excerpt

In spite of modernization and women s increasing role in the market economy, the practice of the dowry in India is becoming more widespread, and the value of dowries is increasing. There are many well-documented adverse consequences of the dowry system, particularly for women. This is a study of attitudes toward the dowry system among married women in the northern province of Bihar (N = 4,603), in which the dowry has strong roots in tradition. Hypotheses regarding antecedents involving attachment to tradition, exposure to modernizing influences, and self-interest were developed. Each set of factors has some effects, and nearly two thirds of the women in the survey disapprove of the dowry. The practice may be quite resistant to change, however, because its social and economic consequences carry tangible benefits in an increasingly materialistic culture.

Key Words: dowry, India, marriage, modernization, women.

The dowry system-payments from the bride's family to the groom or groom's family at the time of marriage-has a long history in India and other Asian societies (Lee, 1982). The modern Indian dowry system has its roots in the traditional upper-caste practices of kanyadhan (literal meaning: gift of the virgin bride), varadakshina (voluntary gifts given by the bride's father to the groom), and stridhan (voluntary gifts given by relatives and friends to the bride; Diwan, 1987; Van der Veen, 1972). Traditionally, although these gifts could be significant, they were often small tokens of good wishes. More recently, however, the dowry has come to involve a substantial transfer of wealth from the bride's family to the groom's, and has become a major factor in marriage negotiations (Nadagouda, Krishnaswamy, & Aruna, 1992; Paul, 1985; TeJa, 1991).

This is a study of married women's attitudes toward the dowry system in the northern Indian state of Binar. Evidence is mounting that the dowry has some extremely serious adverse consequences for women. At the same time, however, women benefit from dowries in several ways, and these benefits may be increasingly important in a culture that is becoming more materialistic and consumer-oriented. Understanding the antecedents of women's attitudes may help in assessing the potential for processes of social change to eventuate in either the strengthening or the weakening of the dowry system.

Historically, the dowry may have served as a form of premortem inheritance for women, because only men were entitled to inherit family property (Sharma, 1980). It may also have been a way of compensating the groom and his family for the economic support they would provide to the new wife, because women had little or no role in the market economy and would be dependent upon their husbands and in-laws (Boserup, 1970). This interpretation is consistent with the fact that the dowry was historically practiced largely in the upper castes, among whom women's economic roles were particularly restricted. In the lower castes, where women were more likely to be economic contributors to their families, the custom of the bride-price was more common (Srinivas, 1994).

If the economic dependence of women is causally related to the custom of the dowry, women's increasing role in the market economy of India should bring about a decrease in the occurrence and magnitude of dowries. Although there are state-level variations, the ratio of female workers per 100 male workers in India has been increasing steadily in the last several decades, from 22.7 in 1971 to 29.0 in 1991 (Srinivasan, Shariff, Zaman, & Bierring, 1997). These ratios are considerably underestimated in official statistics because female workers are often missed during data collection, or families do not acknowledge women's contributions to household income because of cultural disapproval of women working outside the home (Srinivasan et al). But despite the significant participation of women in the labor force, dowries are becoming even more common. …

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