The Dowry System & Sexual Violence Towards Women in India
TW: marital rape, sexual assault and violence, dowry deaths, suicide, gender-based violence
Arranged marriages have long been perceived as a symbol of wealth and status within India’s community-oriented cultures. Societal norms often paint women with internalized conservative attitudes by using words such as “mother” or “sacrifice” to describe their social roles, which insist that they embrace a family-oriented image while selflessly adhering to everyone’s needs. For traditional (i.e. cisgender and heterosexual) marriages, this translates to society dictating that they typically be organized and paid for by the bride’s parents, and that there are expectations that money, jewely, or other valuables would be given to the groom’s family in the form of a dowry.
As a patriarchal system rooted in patrilineality, the practice of dowry can compromise the physical and psychological well-being of child brides and women as assurances of their safety are exchanged for material worth, as it implies that a bride is only as valuable as the price for which her family is willing to give her away. The amount that a bride is worth depends on factors like the in-laws’ region, religion, caste and subcaste, the groom’s education (which suggests his earning potential and thus his level of respect in the eyes of society), and the bride’s skin tone. If a woman is well-educated, she might be penalized for it as her husband would demand an exorbitant dowry to make up for her earning as much as or more than her husband. Despite the deep-rooted misogyny permeating the practice, dowry has become a symbol of pride in Indian society rather than being regarded as the criminal offense that it is.
Economic security is linked to land ownership in many South Asian countries, particularly in agricultural communities; in India, 2005 amendments to the Hindu Succession Act in inheritance laws allowed women and men equal access to securing land. However, the continuing practice of dowry, which is often considered the daughter’s share of a family’s assets and “has long been accepted justification for unequal inheritance,” disrupts the country’s progress towards equality as men who are considered to be from well-established families demand large dowries in exchange for taking care of their wives. For decades, activists, lawyers, and economists have argued that dowry payments “commodify a woman’s worth and domesticise her identity.” Yet, the normalization of monetary expectations within marriage arrangements that tie a woman’s worth to the money expended on the wedding by her family has allowed other practices like domestic abuse and sexual assault to become prevalent.
The unfairness surrounding the commonly brushed aside and justified fact of violence within marriages does not come as a surprise when we consider the fact that, in a country where a woman is raped every 13 minutes, marital rape is not even considered a crime. As anecdotal evidence will suggest, when patriarchal conditioning throws hate and shame at abused women and excuses men for their actions, many women would rather accept abuse as a normal part of married life for failing to act as a “good wife” for their husband than escape the financial and social “security” they may have been forced into.
The Dowry System & Dowry Deaths
The 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act made the dowry system illegal and punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 Indian rupees and a minimum of five years in prison. Despite the law, as dowry-related violence continued to rise, the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 was changed to include a presumption of suicide abetment if the woman is subjected to mistreatment by her husband or his relatives, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized cruelty by a spouse or his relatives in 1983.
Still, harsher penalties have not deterred the practice of dowry as a fundamental institution of Indian marriages – with modern-day gift-giving in the form of gold, land, or cars by the woman’s family presented as a loophole to the law. With over 13,000 dowry complaints and 7,100 dowry deaths in 2019, only 35.6 percent of the over 3,500 dowry fatalities tried in court resulted in criminal conviction, owing to the difficulty for families in proving that a woman died as a result of dowry abuse. At the end of 2019, 46,000 dowry cases were still awaiting trial. In 2020, Dehli recorded the highest dowry suicides of any city at 108 deaths, and 30 percent of all crimes against women in India were registered under “cruelty by husband or relatives of the husband”: one of three laws under the IPC designed to prevent dowry-related abuse, but a law that lacks clarity on exactly what percentage of cruelty cases are linked to dowry.
After months of abuse over a dowry of which her family were aware, Vismaya’s death by suicide – after accepting that “it was her fate and she had to deal with it” – led to her husband Kiran Kumar’s sentence of 10 years in jail. An analysis of Vismaya’s case reveals the immense fear ingrained in girls from a young age of the social stigma that comes with leaving their matrimonial homes. Gouri Chaudhary, Chairperson of ‘Action India’, a grassroots charity striving to empower women in low-income areas through education on family planning, domestic violence and healthcare access, relates how girls have kept the fact of their torture from their parents to prevent embarrassment after “spending all this money on their marriage.”
Indian Law: Marital Rape is Not Rape
Recently, a deodorant ad by Layer’r Shot portrayed a group of men preying on a woman’s fear of rape when talking about who would take the last “shot” of the remaining bottle of spray; as the camera focuses on the woman’s reaction to the men’s discussion instead of on the product displayed behind her, it is implied that the group is discussing who would be the last person to sexually molest the woman. Condemned for its sexist message in promoting rape culture, the ad is one of many over the years that have reduced stark social issues to “banter.” By neglecting the irreverisible harm that trivializing rape may cause, sexual assault is framed as the norm rather than an offense, causing groups like the media to continue normalizing such widespread atrocities.
The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 724,115 women found that the average Indian woman is 17 times more likely to face sexual violence from her husband than from anyone else. Spousal violence affects roughly 30 percent of women aged 18 to 49, and one in every five women is subjected to non-consensual marital sex. In addition to these figures, NFHS data revealed that 99 percent of sexual assault went unreported in 2015-16.
India is one of 32 countries in the world, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Libya, where marital rape is still not considered a crime. In 1736, Matthew Hale’s “History of the Pleas of the Crown” stated that the husband could not be guilty of raping his lawful wife, as she had “given up herfelf in this kind” to her husband through mutual matrimonial consent and contract. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises rape to punish non-consensual sexual acts, but the exception to the law states that, since marital relationships are different from other relationships, it is not relevant within the scope of the section. The Marital Rape Exemption (MRE), which treats forced sexual intercourse differently when concerning a married couple, is a blatant violation of Article 14 of the Constitution that demands equality before the law.
Marital rape was first discussed in the 42nd Law Commission Report in 1971, which highlighted the presumption of consent when the husband and wife are living together and the differentiation between marital rape and “other” rape. Though the Indian Supreme Court ruled in October 2017 that part of the IPC which excused marital rape of minors aged 15-18 was unconstitutional, the exception for marital rape of adult women remained.
The split verdict by a two-judge bench, Justice Rajiv Shakdher and Justice C. Hari Shankar, in the Dehli High Court on 11th May 2022 while hearing a case against marital rape meant that the safeguard for a husband against a rape charge by his wife remained intact in the IPC. While Justice Shakdher deemed the law unconstitutional and “steeped in patriarchy and misogyny,” Justice Shankar felt that removing the law would hurt the institution of marriage in Indian society as sex, “whether consensual or non-consensual,” is not rape as a marriage assumes a “legitimate expectation of sex.”
The 2021 report by Equality Now, an organization working to protect and advance the rights of all girls and women, on “Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors” claimed that consent to marriage “cannot and should not be construed as lifelong consent to sex.” Thus, a marital relationship should not act as grounds to defend against rape. If a marriage assumes a woman’s lifelong consent to sex, in a gang rape involving the husband of the victim, he would not be accused of rape alongside others due to his relationship with the victim. Justice Shankar’s views, like Hale’s statement over 200 years ago, essentially eliminate women’s bodily autonomy as marriages, with systems like dowry in place, continue to be seen as a transaction of property – namely, women’s bodies as objects of male property.
However, Justice Shakdher supports the notion that any woman who enters marriage does not “subjugate or subordinate herself to her spouse or give irrevocable consent to sexual intercourse in all circumstances.” Furthermore, the right to “withdraw consent at any given point in time forms the core of the woman’s right to life and liberty which encompasses her right to protect her physical and mental being.”
What’s Fueling India’s Misogyny?
As Professor Praveena Kodoth from the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram states, “Men are not seen as lifeless if they don’t get married, women are.” In Malayalam, the saying “ninakku oru jeevitham vende?” translates to “Don’t you need a life?” Similar phrases like “got left behind, got sat behind” are used to convey how, if as a woman you are not married, you do not move forward in life.
An article by The Diplomat notes that Indian women have become trapped between a “traditional yet patriarchal society on one hand and a liberal yet exploitative one on the other.” In poorer rural parts of the country, girls continue to be seen as a financial burden and are treated as less than boys, resulting in over 63 million "missing" girls by 2018 due to infanticide. Dowry practices add to the narrative of a woman’s sole purpose as being confined within the rules of domestic life, whereas men grow up to believe in their superiority as the potential breadwinners of the family. More often than not, this excuses men’s behaviour in claiming that they have the “right,” as marital rape laws suggest, to sexually assault their partners.
Despite the fact that various parts of the country have become more "liberalized," there have been exploits of gender equality by powers such as the Indian media – particularly Bollywood and its changing portrayal of women in cinema over the last few decades. While the 1990s saw women being cast as either meek damsels in distress or maternal figures, recent films show a growing trend of often excessively sexualizing young actresses. From the 1970s to the 1990s, certain movies had mandatory rape scenes where a woman being molested would be saved by a hero if she was the heroine; if not, she would be brutally killed and the entire movie would follow a revenge plot. Bollywood even had special actors that appeared as rapists in most of the films they acted in – a concept that audiences seemed to love.
So-called “item numbers” like ‘Jalebi Bai’, ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’, and ‘Chikni Chameli’ have seen a rise since the 2000s. The term “item” indicates a sexually charged woman with a “corrupted” sense of morality – who usually has no direct connection with the main plot of the narrative since many films rely on these personas for sales – carrying out a risqué music-and-dance performance with lewd lyrics to “titillate” the audience. While for some, these dancers are argued to be a symbol of sexual freedom for women, others view them as a normalization of the male gaze and female objectification; in ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ (‘Munni is dishonoured/disgraced’), women are described as a piece of chicken, and in ‘Chikni Chameli’, girls are fetishized for drinking in secret. As these women break away from the common societal notion of the monogamous woman, they become “a source of contention… [which] leads to the need of banning such songs before they ‘corrupt and deprave’ the society.”
Even then, the blame seems to fall on the woman for being too sexual, too suggestive, too free. Songs under censorship bypass the objectification contained within lyrics and choreography, and focus instead on the encouragement of “harmful images” of sexuality that clash with traditional Indian values. Meanwhile, the male lyricists and audiences who form the image of these “item” women are left to either become enraptured by them or be forced to look away as long-held ideas, like “boys will be boys” and the belief that they could not possibly be able to control themselves when presented with sex, add to the cycle of sexual abuse and its prevelance in Indian society.
As an article from The Chakkar relates, actor and film-maker Soni Razdan says that women have been seen as objects of desire for decades, and to ban or suppress this would be more damaging when better sex education and less taboo around the topic of sex would prove better for Indian society. As for the crassness of the lyrics and choreography of item songs, the industry should consider the views of actors and encourage self-agency over how they wish to be described in these songs.
The inherent biases within India’s codes of law and societal norms battle with concepts like that of marriage as an individual choice that does not affect the inherent worth of the individual. When the law continues to excuse sexual abuse under archaic ideas of male entitlement and people continue with immoral practices like dowries to conform to an abstract concept of “the way it is done,” there is a long way to go to make a difference in terms of women’s rights in both the traditional and increasingly liberal parts of the nation.
Editors: Adele L. Raniyah B., Amber T., Uzayer M.
**Written in July, 2022**