When the Hindu wife is killed or driven to suicide by her husband and his family she becomes a victim of 'dowry death', as such occurrences are popularly described. Because of the nature of the crime-almost always a death by burning that is made to resemble a domestic accident-the central and often the sole source of information about the circumstances of the death is the victim herself. Therefore her testimony-its content, its form, its credibility-is crucial if an indictment of her killers is to take place. The fact that convictions have taken place in only 3 per cent of all reported cases is an indication of the problematic status of the occurrence and nature of such testimony. In the first place there are legal obstacles to the admissibility of a burnt woman's 'dying declaration' as evidence, only recently overcome as a result of the intervention of women's groups. 1 But more often the dying women themselves maintain silence over their killing, in this observing an extension of the prohibition enjoined upon the good Hindu wife on uttering the name of the husband, a taboo founded upon the belief that with each such utterance his life is shortened by a day. 2
Why, even when her accusation carries weight legally, does the dying wife more often than not acquit her husband and his family of the crime of killing her or driving her to suicide? Social pressures-fear, habit, consideration for her children or 'family honour', or a final access of charity or forgiveness-allow her to speak only to save him. 3 Her testimony is still conditioned by the ideology that will not 'name' the husband. Speech and silence-testimony and taboo-work towards the same end, the protection of the husband.
Wife-murder as a widespread social phenomenon in India expresses the socially sanctioned violence against women that reinforces and is reinforced by the ideology of husband-worship (pativrata). This chapter is an exploration of women's silence and testimony in this context-why and how the prohibition upon their speech is imposed and maintained, what the implications are of both silence and its obverse, speech, for the construction and understanding of