Dowry and its implications on women have perhaps been most discussed and debated when it comes to womens issues in India, so much so that the word dowry itself is almost synonymous with womens oppression. It therefore leaves one wondering what another book on dowry might have to say. The subtitle reveals that the present work is a reinvestigation of the whole debate surrounding dowry and the condemnation faced by this social custom because of the number of women supposedly dying as a result of it. Although one might indict the author Veena Talwar Oldenburg of endorsing dowry and its murderous intent, a careful reading of the book proves otherwise. There is no mistaking that Oldenburg tries to absolve dowry (in its most basic form) as a prime reason for women being killed, through an investigation into the history of the custom in India particularly that of the colonial period. But what is of more interest here is the fact that by doing so she tries to point to the fact that women were and are being killed for reasons much more serious than what some scholars would have us believe and that requires serious investigation. This is the underlying subtext suggested throughout the book.
The trajectory that the book follows starts from the present going to the past and coming back to the present. The work does not qualify completely as historical because it is interspersed and rightly so, with the authors own personal experiences as well as first-hand accounts of many women who had suffered in their marital homes due to dowry demands. Yet it is to history particularly of the colonial period that the author looks for answers to some of the questions that intrigue her. Acknowledging that there have perhaps been as many explanations and analyses related to the dowry problem as there has been actual incidence of it she states that none has sufficiently explained why or since when this practice started and spread to this monstrous proportion. What she encounters are only contradcitory explanations from archival and contemporary sourcesthe former blaming Hindu culture, while the latter comprising activists and the media blaming western values. Armed with many questions Oldenburg embarks on this long and arduous journey into history trying to determine how and why dowry came to be associated with violence against women of the most gruesome kind euphemistically termed bride burning in most newspaper reports.
In the very first chapter the author tries to address the conflicting definitions and contradictions associated with the very meaning of dowry. She skims through the notions of womens property given by Manu and Meghatithi in the Vedas and the Dharmashastras and jumps over to the colonial period where dowry had begun to assume different proportions from the earlier idea of streedhan or womens wealth. Later in the book she goes at length as to how this came to be so. The similarities and differences with various other marriage related customs of exchanging goods like the practices of vari (gift of clothes and jewels from the grooms family) or mul (bride price) are also explored. She points out that if marriage payments or exchanges hold the key to evaluating the status of women and gender violence then surely these other practices which have received little attention from anthropologists, also require to be appraised.
In trying to explain what dowry means in the complex Indian society ridden with differences in caste, class and religion, Oldenburg continuously reiterates that the practice has changed as British colonial policies were put into place. Her study is based in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent, particularly the undivided colonial Punjab. The historical exploration that Oldenburg undertakes is to explain why simply looking at dowry as discriminatory and unacceptable, and criminalizing the practice by having the relevant laws in place has failed to bring in the desired results. She seeks to find the answers in the colonial policies of the early 19th century and rummages through heaps of colonial records. She points out in no uncertain terms that in pre-colonial India dowry was far from being a problem or an undisputed motive to inflict a fiery death on a bride, but was a support for women. Oldenburg only stops short of describing the institution of dowry as feminist! For many, such a proclamation would amount to blasphemy especially to those present-day feminists who have had to fight a tough legal battle to ban this practice and declare it unlawful in the hope that it would save the lives of many women. But Oldenburg is quick to point out that the practice of dowry which she talks about is far from the distorted extortionist version of the practice that we know today. As colonialism found its roots and began to be more deeply entrenched in India, many of the local customs were also being continually negotiated, contested and altered. Although both seem independent of the other, Oldenburg succinctly points out that it is not so. She gives a step by step account starting from what dowry meant to Punjabis before it changed under colonial rule to how many of the fallouts of British imperial policies were simply brushed off as cultural evils to how British interpretation and subsequent documentation of Indian customs helped in not only furthering their so-called civilizing mission but has also lent explanation to the collective understanding of the practice till date.
Oldenburg explains that it is by looking at the political economy of the time that one can unearth how dowry began to be alleged as a reason for killing women either as young girls and infants (to ward off the danger of impoverishment by having to pay dowry) or as newly married brides (for not bringing enough dowry). The colonial construction of women far from helping women was only making things worse by bringing about a collusion of Punjabi patriarchy with colonial patriarchy. For example, she states how the colonial documentation of female infanticide undertaken with the help of local informants (undoubtedly male) sought to explain female infanticide as a crime committed by upper/higher castes for reasons of honour. But the single event which has changed the history of Punjab and its people according to Oldenburg is the transformation of the basic relationship between peasants and their land and the simultaneous codification of customary law. Men were made sole proprietors of land thus producing hitherto unknown perceptions of gendered rights in land. She reveals that since land could now be sold, mortgaged and bought it is what caused much of the infamous indebtedness of the Punjab peasant. Thus she refutes the evidence that infanticide was a high-caste Hindu problem and that dowry became extortionist all of a sudden and holds the colonial state squarely responsible for both. She devotes two chapters to explaining the two-fold dynamics of power that these intertwining events brought about, first that of the peasant with the colonial administrative system and second that of the man and woman within the peasant household. A third angle which she highlights is the withholding of industrialization in the colonial state by the colonizers. The industrial revolution in Britain and elsewhere in Europe held the key to the end of practices such as dowry in a formerly dowry conscious Britain as women began to enter the economy on a large scale as paid workers.
After a detailed disquisition into the colonial history of the practice of dowry, a history which lent it the distorted version widely prevalent today, Oldenburg looks at the present-day manifestations of the practice in the lives of those women whose life histories had been documented as cases in Saheli, a Delhi-based NGO fighting for womens rights. She finds in the versions of their failed marriages the familiar rhetoric against dowry. She probes deeper into these narratives of women and states that the undue emphasis on dowry often serves as a smoke-screen that obscures other exacerbating causes for marital violence against women. She believes that somewhere the colonial versions of dowry being the cause of female infanticide and murder of young brides has seeped so much into the collective social psyche that an aggrieved woman in a failed marriage can only hope for a possibility of redress if she inflicts dowry charges. Oldenburge narrates the circumstances of her own failed earlier marriage to point at the vagaries of the legal system.
For any future reform on the law against dowry, Dowry Murder would definitely serve as a reference as it is a reminder that dowry is not an inevitable component of culture nor is it an isolated phenomenon but is fundamen-tally related to structural inequalities in society. Oldenburg thus successfully shifts the focus by problematizing the practice of dowry itself rather than its excesses and by doing so paves the way for more nuanced insights into those circumstances which have changed womens history in India.
Syeda Sakira Sahin, Assistant Professor at the Department of Womens Studies, Gauhati. Her area of interests are women rights and development issues.