The family is traditionally the core of all Asian societies. Decisions are often carried out while taking into consideration the immediate family, as well as the external family. But in the context of Asian society, the family “is not a particularly loving social unit.” In most Asian societies, the family is used as a means of safeguarding property, continuing bloodlines and acquiring more wealth.
Indian society is one such example wherein this reality exists. Sons are granted preferential treatment over their sisters, because the former is expected to run the family business and continue the family name. In addition, customs such as the dowry system provide instant fortune to a groom’s family. The Indian male, therefore, views the family as a venue wherein he can exercise control and obtain material prosperity.
This belief is not without cultural reinforcements. Friends and relatives exclaim congratulations whenever a baby boy is born to Indian parents. In Indian society, a son is regarded as insurance – he will inherit his father’s property and will help support the family by getting a job. In sharp contrast, daughters are seen as additional expenses – their only place is in the home. The bias against daughters is deeply ingrained in Indian culture that people in some parts of India use the expression “The servant of your household has been born” when greeting a family with a newborn daughter.
In the Indian family, the father is the provider and the dominant authority figure. He must treat his wife like a servant and be stern and aloof towards his children. The wife, on the other hand, must be loyal, obedient and subservient to her husband. She is supposed to tend to his needs like a faithful and devoted servant.
Such a rigid and hierarchical family structure often leaves wives feeling neglected and abused. To get rid of these sentiments, they lavish all their attention to their sons. In doing so, they become the provider and the dominant authority figures in their respective families. The Indian mother gives her baby, especially if it is a boy, constant nurturing. The baby is constantly handled, overindulged and is responded to at every whimper.
Growing up, male Indian children are made to believe that they deserve to be the center of attention simply because of their gender. Their mothers exempt them from chores, as the former regards housework as a girl’s job. Upon reaching adolescence, male Indians are encouraged to prove their masculinity by drinking, smoking, gambling and having sex with prostitutes. This societal expectation is not without support from the family – there are cases when fathers and uncles are the ones who bring their sons and nephews to the brothel for their first sexual experience.
Because of its overemphasis on indulging sons, the aforementioned child-rearing technique produces very irresponsible males. Pampered from infancy, most Indian men end up as wastrels, misusing the resources first of their mothers and later of their wives. Worse, they marry women who were raised to tolerate the capriciousness of their husbands. The conjugal family, as a result, is transformed into an extension of the husband’s immediate family. The wife, meanwhile, becomes the husband’s replacement for his mother – a woman who will cater to his every whim and will overlook even his most serious transgressions
The wife has no choice but to accept and live with this situation – society dictates that she shifts her loyalty to her conjugal family upon marriage. Not only is she to take care of her husband; she is also to look after her parents-in-law. Indian parents-in-law, especially mothers-in-law, take advantage of this societal obligation by ensuring that the marriage of their sons will provide their family with material benefits.
The dowry system is one way of achieving this goal. Although it was already outlawed in India in 1961, the practice of paying and accepting dowry is still customary in the country. India’s illegal dowry system leaves women vulnerable to abuse and even murder. Every year, an estimated 25,000 women in the country are maimed or killed over dowry disputes. Dowry-related crimes are often perpetuated by grooms and mothers-in-law who are not satisfied with the dowries that the bride’s family gave them.
Victims of dowry murders are usually killed by being doused with kerosene and set aflame with a lighted match. The family of the groom will then say that the death was a “suicide” or a “kitchen accident.” Police are oftentimes bribed into corroborating the claim. Families who are able to afford very expensive dowries, on the other hand, are often left impoverished and with extremely heavy debts.
In pre-colonial India, upper-caste families observed the dowry system in order to help defray marriage expenses and to enable the bride to live on her own should she leave an abusive marriage. But the British introduced homogenized and codified laws into the country, resulting in male domination of the local economy. Only men were allowed to own land and work outside the home. In the process, boys gained higher social worth than girls.
These social, political and economic conditions led to the transformation of the dowry system from a wedding gift to a form of payment to a man for marrying a woman. Because Indian women were no longer capable of owning land or working outside the home, parents wanted to do away with their daughters as early as possible. As a result, they lured potential husbands with expensive dowries. The families of these men, on the other hand, viewed the dowry system as an opportunity to pay off heavy land taxes that the British imposed on them.
Dowries took on a new form in the 20th century. During this period, families of prospective grooms demanded costly dowries in order to keep up with the consumerist lifestyle associated with capitalism. To convince families of potential brides into paying, Indian men, particularly those from the upper classes, capitalize on their eligibility, social prowess and caste. The higher the qualifications and the caste, the higher the dowry required. Indian families regard marriage to a higher caste as the fastest way to social advancement.