Once confined to some communities, dowry is now all pervasive in Kerala

It is often mentioned in Kerala that dowry is more prevalent in southern districts, while people in northern districts don’t follow the custom. But this isn’t fully true.
Deceased Vismaya on her wedding day
Deceased Vismaya on her wedding day
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In this series on dowry harassment, we explore the structural challenges that women face, what stops them from leaving abusive marriages, and the takeaways from their experiences which could help others.  

A year ago, a Christian family in a hilly region of Kannur district called off their 29-year-old son's wedding, a few days before the betrothal. The young groom was a well paid engineer in a multinational company and got married a month later to another woman. His mother explained why the marriage was called off, "They (bride's family) were a well off family; both her brothers are settled abroad, father is also rich. The wedding was fixed, and my son and the woman started talking over the phone and even met a couple of times. He liked her. But they did not say anything about what they will give to their daughter. Even though we gave some hints, as it is bad to ask directly, they did not say anything about it. So we decided to call it off," she said, adding, "However, he got a better offer, where they gave Rs 20 lakh, 60 sovereigns of gold and a luxury car without us even giving a hint."

The woman's family, however, had another side to the whole incident. "We had actually started dating soon after the engagement, for almost six months. We were in love. Meanwhile, my father called me and said their family had been hinting at dowry and that he didn't feel comfortable. But I insisted that he (the groom) was very nice and he might not know about it as he never talked to me about anything. Suddenly, a few days before our betrothal, they called it off. My dad spent lakhs for my studies and I have a decent job. I was shocked, he did not even call me to cancel the wedding," she said.

This young woman’s wedding was called off because her family did not offer to pay a dowry or make promises of showering their daughter with gold and gifts. However, dowry is a much prevalent practise across Kerala, and often the root cause of discord, leading to cases of domestic violence. If it was Uthara, who was killed by her husband Sooraj through a snake bite in 2020, now it is Vismaya of Kollam who died after a string of domestic violence incidents. Vismaya’s father gave her 100 sovereigns of gold, some land and a car, but her husband Kiran Kumar was not satisfied enough. And between Uthara and Vismaya, there are many other women who have died, who survived, and who still live with the trauma of dowry harassment in the state.

Dowry is given and taken in some or the other form across Kerala, and most communities practise it. According to many researchers, only Nambudhiri Brahmin communities and Syrian Christians practiced the custom of dowry till the early twentieth century. Unlike these patrilineal communities, the matrilineal communities in Kerala, mostly did not practice dowry until the 1930s. Among the matrilineal community of Nairs, marriage as an institution did not exist. In south Kerala, Nair women would stay in their birth homes establishing sambandham relationships with men and did not pay dowry. In north Kerala, matriliny was still practised though the woman would move into her partner’s home. Here too, dowry was not part of the equation. However, the Mappilla Muslims of north Kerala who were also matrilineal and matrilocal, paid dowry which was used to accommodate the ‘in marrying’ husband. (Gough 1961).

Anna Lindberg, director of the Swedish South Asian Studies Network (SASNET) at Lund University who has written a lot on Kerala’s dowry systems, says that the custom spread to all communities — including Nairs and even Pulayas who did not practise dowry — after the 1950s, and the Gulf boom made it worse.

She noted that an Indian researcher concluded in the mid 1970s that dowry was paid in about one-fourth of all Nair marriages in south Kerala.

According to Praveena Kodoth, a professor of Gender, Human Development and Migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, dowry became a basis of match making in southern and central Kerala in the second half of the 20th century. “Caste associations used to even record the transactions made (gold and cash) in order to mediate disputes later. Among Christians, dowry is a deeply entrenched customary practice. There was the practice of paying a ‘tithe’ – a share of the dowry to the church — but when dowry amounts grew, people started declaring much less than they were paying; so now I believe the church has changed its rule – the church has classified families according to their economic status and demands payment according to that. Muslims also pay dowry quite openly even in north Kerala.”

The amount of dowry in Kerala, like in many other parts of the country, depends on the groom’s job, the family status, assets of the groom etc. If the groom has more income, then more dowry is expected. It also depends on how much dowry close relatives have received or given. Families of both the bride and the groom consider it a ‘prestige issue’. Praveena, through years of extensive research, found that dowry is openly entertained if the woman is ‘over-age’, or has poor economic, social and normative feminine attributes.

In cases where a woman is seen as an ‘economic burden’ — if she is not gainfully employed, or has a disability or is dependent in some other manner — dowry is looked at as ‘payment’ in return for ‘maintenance’. Many brides’ families also see dowry as a way to ensure their daughter is ‘happy’ in her marriage, in her in-laws’ home.

Is there a north-south divide?

It is often mentioned in Kerala that dowry is more prevalent in southern districts like Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam or Kottayam, while people in northern districts don’t follow the custom. "When my brother-in-law, who is from Thiruvananthapuram, fixed his wedding, his in-laws kept on offering us dowry. They were compelling us to select a vehicle, register a land in his name and offer gold. Being from north Kerala, I was not able to digest it. But for the bride's family, it was a prestige issue. For them, 100 sovereigns of gold, car and other assets are not just dowry but their prestige among others," Balachandran, a postal department official from Kasaragod says.

Statistics prove there is some validity in this assertion. According to reports, 1,096 cases of dowry-related harassment cases have been registered with the Kerala State Women’s Commission since 2010, and 80% of the total cases were from the seven southern districts including Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Idukki and Ernakulam. The capital city of Thiruvananthapuram in fact accounted for 40.78% of the cases — numbering at 447 — while 126 were registered from Kollam.

Praveena Kodoth, however, has a different viewpoint. Her research says that “in southern Kerala these transfers are acknowledged explicitly as dowry, whereas a discourse of gifts predominates in the north, which builds on a rejection of dowry.

“This does not mean that dowry is not prevalent in the northern parts of Kerala but that it takes the form of hidden transactions. More often than not, there is an unwillingness to openly negotiate dowry transfers before a marriage but there are expectations. There are well established standards about how much would be expected of a girl's family depending on the economic standing and social status of the bridegroom's family.  A girl's family is usually careful to match these expectations to avoid trouble later,” she says.

Praveena adds that the formerly matrilineal castes of northern Kerala generally insist they do not practice dowry but there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ in which families may pay dowries. “These are circumstances of girls being 'age over’ or above the socially desirable age of marriage and their families are otherwise unable to find a match. Dowry is transacted on the margins of the marriage market and often these matches involve marriage brokers and bureaus. When girls get 'age over' it is usually not out of choice. Though it is said that girls find it difficult to get a match when they lack 'good looks' the reality is different.  Matchmaking is difficult when families suffer from a combination of social and economic disadvantages such as when there are no adult males in poor families and the mother is widowed in addition to which girls are also not considered attractive. It is in such circumstances that open demands for dowry are made,” she says.

The rejection of dowry in north Kerala, Praveena argues, ‘is distinct from the feminist position that dowry is an affirmation of patriarchy or even a liberal position that it is a social evil’.

“The denial of the practice (in north Kerala) was a cultural thing. Among most Hindus in the region, the term dowry is associated with upfront negotiations prior to agreeing upon a match which local people consider demeaning. They will tell you that it reeks of lack of trust and that they will walk out if such demands are made (as if we will send our girls empty handed!). It is relatively rare to give expensive gifts like cars and cash openly but they do give plenty of gold. Where they give cash it is usually hidden except in the circumstances mentioned above, where brokers are involved,” she says.

Seeking or offering dowry 

Wonder how people ask for dowry or offer dowry in this century? Many families are good at it. They assign distant relatives, a marriage broker or a friend to talk about 'mattu kaaryangal' (other things), the term they usually use to talk about dowry.

"When we went to see a bride for my son, it was the broker who spoke about other things. We had asked him to do so. He told the bride's family that two daughters of mine were married by giving this much amount. So the bride's father also offered the same amount," says a woman from Thiruvananthapuram.

Mentioning the dowry given to daughters, dowry accepted from elder daughters-in-law, etc are some ways of asking for it. "What will you give to your daughter," is another question heard from dowry seekers.

"I have had 12 pennu kaanals (groom and family meeting a bride for the first time) in my life. Some kept on mentioning that the boy is a government employee, earns this much, he is from a well off family, they have a big house etc etc. These are all points made to hint to my father that he should give a good dowry to get him as my husband," says Anagha, an engineer from Kottayam.

Dowry is no longer just a transaction of money, land or jewelry. It has gone through much innovation. Many families pay for the education of the groom; for example securing an MD seat for a doctor by paying lakhs is a way of giving dowry.

Some Christian families follow the 'tradition' of getting money from the bride's family to bear the wedding expenses. Vehicles, gold, diamond, and properties follow. "Many Christian women are not given their rightful share in their family’s properties and wealth, once they are married. So the idea is that she will be given some money, gold etc at the time of her wedding. But what happens is, this money is usually given to the groom and not the bride; he is also gifted a car, he can also sell her jewellery. This money, he uses for wedding expenses. There are many families even now asking for it, obviously indirectly," says Abraham, a social worker from Kannur district.

The scenario is similar in Muslim families in the northern districts. "I was married off when I was 18. My parents have four daughters. My sister-in-law was my classmate and that is how the proposal came. My father was not able to give 100 sovereigns or meet their other demands, but the groom liked me and he compelled his family to compromise. Finally, they agreed for a lesser amount of gold,” says a 32-year-old woman from Kasaragod district.

“But I regret the whole thing now,” she says, “even now I am mentally tortured. My mother-in-law tells me every now and then that there were families who offered their son Rs 30 lakh, more gold etc, and yet he married me. He is in Dubai now, comes once a year, and when he comes, she pretends to be nice to me.”

The 100 sovereigns of gold which costs more than Rs 50 lakh, is a must among middle class Hindu families in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam. “I was given 100 sovereigns and Rs 10 lakh by my father at the time of wedding. Now, even after five years of marriage, my husband sometimes tells me there were offers for him for Rs 40 lakh and a car, as he is a government official with a good income. It hurts me, but I have a daughter and a son now, I can't just break my marriage easily," a 30-year-old woman from Kollam says. She adds that some of her friends have gone through physical torture over dowry.

"If the parents want to give their daughter something, let them do that when she is in need — during a medical emergency or when the couple struggles with financial constraints. Why hurry at the time of the wedding? Many brides’ families are very keen on giving dowry. They don't dare break the wheel. They don't refuse an alliance if the groom's family hints at dowry," Balakrishnan says.

He also points out that there is a tradition of ‘Maru veedu kaanal’ after the wedding where the bride's family visits the groom's house with household appliances and groceries. “More than Rs 1 lakh is spent by a middle class family to gift these items to the groom during ‘maru veedu kaanal’. The bride’s parents feel ashamed if they don't give her expensive items. When I got married. it was just one ‘maru veedu kaanal’, now I have heard that they do it twice or thrice, where every time they take things to the groom's house. What a shameful act this is," he says.

Santha, a domestic worker from Thiruvananthapuram says, "For my daughter’s wedding, the groom’s family asked for 20 sovereigns of gold. The groom was a daily wage worker, they said he earns more than Rs 25,000 a month. We agreed — but we could give only 10 sovereigns, and promised to give the rest later. It's been six months since my daughter's wedding and I gave him five more sovereigns of gold, and also gave him some land we owned.” She adds that after the wedding, they gifted cupboards and some kitchen utensils worth Rs 15,000 to the groom's family.

The root of the rot

Burton Cleetus, an Assistant Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University says that deaths related to dowry are just symptoms of a larger problem, and we are not addressing the real issue or its cause. He says that caste institutions, religious institutions and media are a part of the crime in tragedies related to dowry.

"When we enforce conventional marriages, the fundamental factor in it is wealth transfer. Though we romanticise marriage, it is basically a market for this wealth transfer. It is the same people and media who speak against the dowry system, who run matrimonial sites. It is the same media that promotes a luxurious lifestyle which creates a desire in people, a desire that is above our income. So on one hand, they promote consumerism, and on the other, they criticise these systems. This is pointless. All these are causes of the problem in a larger perspective,” he says.

Praveena says dowry is the mainstay of endogamy. “Caste and the belief in jati is the mainstay of endogamy and endogamy reproduces caste. Dowry underlines the importance for women to be married in a socially appropriate way otherwise their families will feel shame. It does not affect a man in the same way to be unmarried.  Why would parents sell their house to pay a dowry, if it was not considered so important? There are all these sayings that apply when a woman is not married: ninnu poyee, erunnu poyee, pura nirangu nilkunnu. (translates to she has stayed back). And then of course, she could ‘lose her way’ or make a ‘misalliance’ – where caste does come in. The problem is that a family loses ‘status’ and ‘honour’. Therefore, a woman is not an individual but represents her family. Any ‘wrong move’ can humiliate the family – this is conventional patriarchal wisdom,” she says.

She also adds that marriage out of caste or religion is rare in Kerala and families that accept these marriages are unlikely to give or take dowry. “According to India Human Development Survey IHDS data from 2011, only about 10% of marriages were inter-caste, and even less were love marriages or inter-religious.  When families accept these non conventional arrangements, it is unlikely that they will endorse practices like dowry,” she adds.


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