Anna Lindberg from Lund University, Sweden, was the passionate guest speaker at an interesting seminar on Thursday 25th October organised by the Centre of South Asian Studies, Edinburgh University. The topic was her research on the surprising recent upsurge of the dowry system – even though it is illegal – throughout Kerala, whereas traditionally the system was confined to minority groups. This essay aims to briefly summarise the key points made during the talk: Paradoxes in Kerala, the development of the dowry system, the resulting problems, and what can be done in the future to curb and reverse the increase.
The Modern Day State of Kerala
The population of Kerala is divided into 3 main religious groups with 19% Christian, 25% Muslim and the majority group being 56% Hindu. In 2011 Kerala had a population of 33.3 million and it has a population density of 859 per square km.
The modern-day state of Kerala, which was formed in 1956, is split into 3 parts. Advertisements encouraging tourism successfully package together a wealth of different ideals in the neat slogan, ‘God’s Own Country’. Whilst sitting through the seminar, one wonders what many of the women in the state of Kerala might think of this statement.
Kerala provides an interesting, somewhat paradoxical case study: it has high quality of life indicators but yet a low GDP; grassroots initiatives are implemented from above; there are high levels of female literacy and education yet low levels of female participation in the workforce.
Women actually have a higher life expectancy than men in Kerala (72 versus 67), in contrast to most of India. However gender-based violence is widespread in Kerala, with 46% of the women who Lindberg interviewed across Kerala having experienced gender-based violence at some point during their lives. Another worrying sign of inequality between genders in Kerala is that the suicide rate among women is three times that of the rest of India.
The Development of the Dowry System in Kerala
One hundred years ago only four small communities practiced the dowry system in Kerala: Syrian Christians, Namboothiri Brahmins, Tamil Brahmins and (some) Mappilla Muslims. The communities practised for differing reasons. For example the Syrian Christians did so as a form of pre-modern inheritance; the Mappilla Muslims because the husband would have to leave his land/house when he married in order to live with the wife to subsidise any future capital loss.
However during the 1970s most Muslims and lower castes adopted the dowry system and by 1990 it had boomed and encompassed all in Kerala. Some 95% of the families Lindberg interviewed in 2011 practised the system of dowries, despite it having been outlawed in the 1961. So what has changed?
One explanation given was that whilst Syrian Christians during the early part of the 19th century had not been a dominant, well-educated group, by the end of the century they had increasingly become a leading, enterprising community in Kerala, believed to embody the capitalist spirit. However, in family matters they were less modern and practised a large dowry system. The influential ideology of the dowry started to spread through the population, weakening the matrilineal system (inheritance and family name based on female lineage), aided by two other important processes: the decline of the feudal system controlled by women, and practices subordinating women, such as gender differences in wages.
Although not traditional in Kerala, the dowry system has gradually spread its tentacles to incorporate the majority of the population. According to Lindberg, other reasons for the prevalence of the dowry system in Kerala are the weakening of the matrilineal system, the rise in influence of the Syrian Christians, globalisation, the decline of cross-cousin marriages, the disintegration of the joint-family system, the devaluation of women, the effeminisation of women (see below), consumerism, land being valued as a commodity, and perhaps also greed.
Lindberg’s research showed that as a result, attitudes towards women gradually started changing over the years and by 2011 females were expected to cover-up; to be domesticated and to carry out home-based work instead of working in the labour market; not to go out at night; nor to be the bread-winner. This has been referred to as a process of effeminisation.
What is a dowry and what are the problems caused?
It is important to note there are many diverse notions of a dowry held by different groups of people, and the idea of a dowry has numerous dimensions. Lindberg’s research pointed to the dowry in Kerala often being disguised by being given to the daughter as a gift. However in the majority of cases in present day Kerala, the research pointed to the reality of the modern dowry entailing the bride’s family giving gold, money or land to the groom, which would be controlled solely by him. Different communities gave various justifications for the dowry: pre-modern inheritance, hypergamy (the practice of marrying into the same or a higher caste), as a subsidy for the woman not working, status, the dearth of grooms. (Please note Lindberg stressed those interviewed were mainly lower castes as they were more willing to participate openly in conversations about dowries).
Dowries cause a vast array of problems in Kerala, with many women Lindberg interviewed having retired early so as to give their pension to the groom, or having sold their house to acquire the necessary funds. The female ratio per 1000 babies is decreasing so sex-selection infanticide is becoming a more pressing issue – female babies are aborted, daughters are seen as an additional cost, suicides occur and brothers marry to obtain a dowry to be given to a sister’s groom.
What can be done?
The dowry system is illegal in Kerala, but its prevalence is testimony to the fact that clearly more has to be done, and not merely at a legal level. Economic, social and cultural aspects must be addressed. Lindberg acknowledged that raising women’s status was going to be highly challenging, but she drew on the example of politicians having succeeded in reforming the worst of the caste problems in Kerala, to demonstrate that the eradication of the dowry system in Kerala is indeed a possibility.
Written by Emily Marshall.
Note from the Blog Editor: This post is the first in a series of posts that will be covering the Centre for South Asian Studies Seminars at the University of Edinburgh.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 UK: Scotland License.