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Every Little Helps

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Ms. Anti-Dowry

A brave Indian woman has refused to let her parents be threatened into paying huge dowry:
The musicians were playing, the 2,000 guests were dining, the Hindu priest was preparing the ceremony and the bride was dressed in red, her hands and feet festively painted with henna.

Then, the bride's family says, the groom's family moved in for the kill. The dowry of two televisions, two home theater sets, two refrigerators, two air-conditioners and one car was too cheap. They wanted $25,000 in rupees, now, under the wedding tent.

As a free-for-all erupted between the two families, the bartered bride put her hennaed foot down. She reached for her royal blue cellphone and dialed 100. By calling the police, Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student, saw her potential groom land in jail and herself land in the national spotlight as India's new overnight sensation.

Yes, I am aware that the parents had already paid quite a bit as dowry. But the problem today in India is twofold.

One, out of fear of future dowry payments at all, parents and parents-to-be kill their female children before and after birth. The abortion industry in India is specifically directed at getting rid of unwanted females who only bring dowry demands; everyone who's spent any time there has seen the ads, a woman with a girl baby, saying, "Pay Rs. 500 now, or Rs. 50,000 later."

The other, and what is directly relevant here, is not related to transactions agreed upon and paid up before the wedding, but instead to last-minute requests like in this case or post-wedding demands. Demands for more money after the wedding are frequent. I've met women who were told by their husband's parents (with whom they live, and who, these women say, see their purpose in life as making their in-laws' life hell -- our western "mother-in-law" grumblings are NOTHING) that, unless they came up with 2,00,000 rupees right off, and a car, and gold jewelry, etc. etc. etc., they'd be sent back to their own family in shame. Many of these women are quite sure their own parents would kill them (not just metaphorically) if they were to return home; some say they did go back to their parents, but had a brother or other relative forcibly bring them back to their husband's house. When they don't kill themselves to escape from their horrid situation, more often than not their mother-in-law or husband will douse them in petrol and set them on fire, saying it's a "kitchen accident." I talked with one woman, horribly disfigured from being burnt in such a way, who was rescued by a neighbor (a neighbor who has gotten death threats from the in-laws); her mother-in-law told her, pre-burning, that, unless she would come up with more dowry immediately, they would kill her so that her husband could marry someone new for more dowry.

Her husband paid for the case to be dropped, and now he's remarried.

One Madrassi social worker I know says some men kill several wives and get rather rich off of it. Parents will know their daughter's future husband has such stories told about him, but they'd rather find themselves well rid of their daughter, no matter whether or not she'll be killed. There's technically a law saying, whereas in all other cases it's "innocent until proven guilty," there should be an assumption of guilt in dowry death cases; however, like pretty much everything else in India, you can buy off the courts.

Times of India articles on the original story and dowry-related anti-woman violence in general add more information. It's telling that Nisha's father complains that he's spent Rs. 18,00,000 and the wedding's not even going to take place; at least his daughter is sensible enough to understand that it's a heck of a lot better this way.


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