Uthra, a young woman and mother of a one-year-old, died on the 7th of May after being bitten by a snake in her sleep. A few weeks before her death, she had been struck by a viper and was undergoing treatment when the second snakebite took her life.
Her parents found it difficult to believe that a snake had found its way inside a closed, air-conditioned room with tiled flooring and had bitten their daughter. And that too, only a few days after she had been bitten the first time. They filed a case with the Kollam District Police Chief sensing foul play.
The investigations were immediately steered towards Uthraâ€™s husband, Sooraj. The reason for their suspicion on Sooraj was that they knew their daughter was being harassed for dowry by Sooraj and that he had removed her gold from the locker on May 2, a day before her first snakebite.
On May 24, post a long interrogation, Sooraj admitted to having murdered his wife by planting a snake in the room after purchasing it from a snake catcher for Rs.10,000.
In all the news channels, Utharaâ€™s family can be seen stating that they had given "everything" to Uthra and Sooraj on the occasion of their wedding -- 100 sovereigns of gold, a car -- on Soorajâ€™s demand, and later funded Soorajâ€™s sisterâ€™s education and her two-wheeler. Moreover, they also gave money whenever Sooraj demanded, mostly on a monthly basis, and they say that they never thought he would murder their daughter.
Dowry deaths are not unfamiliar to India. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, India loses 21 lives to dowry every day, thus making a mockery of the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Yet women themselves choose to or are forced to stay in marriages where they are harassed for dowry, thanks to patriarchy.
In her book The Second Sex, iconic French feminist scholar Simone de Beauvoir sheds light on the fact that even in primitive times, women were treated as payment or objects that were to be passed from one male to another:
â€śIt is menâ€™s society that allows each of its members to accomplish himself as husband and father; woman, integrated as slave or vassal into the family group dominated by fathers and brothers, has always been given in marriage to males by other males. In primitive times, the clan, the paternal gens, treats her almost like a thing: she is part of payments to which two groups mutually consent; her condition was not deeply modified when marriage evolved into a contractual form; dowered or receiving her share of an inheritance, a woman becomes a civil person: but a dowry or an inheritance still enslaves her to her family; for a long period, the contracts were signed between father-in-law and son-in-law, not between husband and wife; in those times, only the widow benefited from an economic independence.â€ť
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, things have not progressed much from this. A woman and her family are burdened with meeting the expenses of the wedding. Theyâ€™re also expected to â€śgiftâ€ť the groomâ€™s family a car of the latterâ€™s choosing and the gold and money they demand in return for the man marrying her.
A daughterâ€™s husband is treated with the highest regard and they make sure that he is always appeased so that he â€ślooks afterâ€ť their daughter well. A daughter is always asked to adjust and compromise while the sons and sons-in-law walk the earth like it is their oyster.
These men, without any qualms, exercise their male privilege on the women whom they married, for their domestic and financial needs. And there is no surprise when their sense of entitlement goes as far as to taking the life of their spouse when things fail to go their way.
Uthraâ€™s parents, while talking to the media, stated that the reason why they suspected Sooraj was that they knew there had been problems between Uthra and him, and that he had been harassing their daughter for more dowry. Then why was Uthra still with him?
The answer to that question is seemingly simple. She should have left him. But the patriarchal system that raised Uthra and Sooraj takes away the simplicity from that answer and makes her predicament a very complex one.
One of the first lessons that girls are taught by their mothers is that as girls, they should know and accept their â€śsecond classnessâ€ť in society, because mothers, from their experiences, know that obedience and acceptance are key to attain a smooth sailing life. And if they question one thing, like the first falling tile of dominos, it would topple the system they are part of.
While sexism exists in marriages across the board, the problematic assertion of gender roles is highlighted right from the wedding rituals and sermons. In a Christian wedding for example, a priest addresses the gathering on the microphone, declaring that the bride should accept her husband as the head of the family and should lead her life as per his wishes. The sermon would go on positioning the man as the protector and saviour of the woman, while all that the woman needs to do is unconditionally love and support her husband and bear his children. From these assertions to the made-up normalcy around her, a lot is tied to the marital status of a woman, which she hesitates to give up even when her existence is at stake.
Even as children, whenever girls deviate slightly from the interests and â€śdutiesâ€ť that are usually thrust upon their gender, someone would remind them that someday they are to â€śgo to another house and their husbands would thrash themâ€ť if they donâ€™t mend their ways.
One of the main reasons why women hesitate to walk out of marriages is that they are raised to believe that they are to go to someone elseâ€™s house, and a daughter who comes back home is looked upon as a burden to her parents. This is not something that is limited to a woman who has no source of income, but also among women who are financially independent.
The question of walking away from a dysfunctional or problematic marriage is something that they would ponder for years -- because of the â€śdisgraceâ€ť that it would bring to them and their families, to a point where they get used to their circumstances and would have developed a variation of Stockholm Syndrome. A womanâ€™s worth -- how much ever educated and financially independent she is -- is still tied to a secure married life that she leads with her husband, a spotless house she keeps and the well-behaved children she raises.
For the ones with children, they stick on to marriages to create an illusion of normalcy, thus raising another set of individuals whose definition of normal becomes a woman sacrificing her happiness and sense of self for her husband and children. Also, the wide wage gap between genders makes it difficult for women to support themselves and their children in case they walk out.
The sad part is that it really takes a woman to die for people to question the system but the worst part is that these deaths are easily forgotten until another woman is set on fire or pushed off from a balcony. In the meantime, toxic marriages thrive behind closed doors to appease a lopsided system that never fails to fail its women.
Minaxi Sajeev is a Corporate Communication Strategist and the author of the anthologies One Woman Island and The Unlabelled Happy Woman.