ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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'Dowry' Revisited

South Asians and the Dowry Problem edited by Werner Menski; Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1999 pp 259.

The book under review touches on dowry – a topic that has not lost its emotive or political relevance for the past two decades. The book – a collection of articles – analyses the issue of dowry differently from the efforts of the Indian women’s movements. The contributors make a distinction between the social custom of dowry – that they hold is acceptable and may even work to the benefit of young married women and their natal families – and dowry-related violence and murders. The latter are seen as reprehensible and suggestions are made to prevent those.

Before one analyses the book, it may help to understand the assumptions that seem to govern it. The book suggests that dowry in itself need not be seen as negative or harmful to women. It is only when it leads to violence against women that there is some cause for concern. It accuses feminists of a ‘one-sided blaming of male extortion’, which as we will see is not a sufficiently accurate representation of the multiple and often sophisticated analyses of violence against women within the family – whether dowry-related or not. It is suggested that since women want dowry as it adds to their status and eases their entry into the marital family, the custom itself cannot and should not be abolished. Julie Leslie’s otherwise interesting article for instance argues that dowry has been seen as a form of inheritance by women on the verge of marriage, as they are unlikely to get access to property otherwise. Bisakha Sen in another article on the economic rationale for dowry uses seemingly complex mathematical models to argue that women are less likely than men to acquire marketable skills prior to marriage and they and their families gain more socially and economically from marriage than do men. Sen’s model seeks to prove that ‘...the married state is expected to yield a utility level for women that is higher than their pre-marriage utility, even after the dowry payment’.

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