The Dowry Evil
A correspondent sends me a newspaper cutting showing that recently in Hyderabad, Sindh, the demand for bridegrooms has been increasing at an alarming rate, an employee of the Imperial Telegraph Engineering Service having exacted Rs. 20,000 as cash dowry during betrothal and promises of heavy payments on the wedding day and on special occasions there after. Any young man who makes dowry a condition of marriage discredits his education and dishonours womanhood. There are many youth movements in the country. I wish that these movements would deal with questions of this character. Such associations often become self-adulation societies, instead of becoming, as they should be, bodies representing solid reform-within. Good as the work of these bodies is at times in helping public movements, it should be remembered that the youth of the country have their reward in the public appreciation they get. Such work, if it is not backed by internal reform, is likely to demoralize the youth by creating in them a sense of unwarranted self-satisfaction. A strong public opinion should be created in condemnation of the degrading practice of dowry, and young men who soil their fingers with such ill-gotten gold should be excommunicated from society. Parents of girls should cease to be dazzled by English degrees and should not hesitate to travel outside their little castes and provinces to secure true, gallant young men for their daughters.
Young India, 21-6-’28
The Secretary, Shri Mirchandani, asks me for suggestions. The only suggestion that I can think of just now is that this organization should create a public opinion against deti-leti that would become irresistible. Young educated Amils are able to squeeze the poor parents of marriageable girls only because there is no active public opinion against the custom. There should be work done in the school and colleges and amongst the parents of girls. The parents should educate their daughters that they would refuse to marry a young man who wanted a price for marrying, and would rather remain spinsters than be party to the degrading terms. The only honourable terms in marriage are mutual love and mutual consent.
Young India, 27-12-‘28
What had they to say with regard to scandalous custom of deti-leti? Instead of making their wives the queens of their homes and of their hearts, they had converted them into chattels to be bought and sold! Was this the lesson that they had imbibed from the reading of English literature? Woman had been described as the ardhangana or the better half of man. But they had reduced her to the position of a slave and the result was the state of paralysis in which they found their country. "Swaraj is not meant for cowards," he concluded , "but for those who would mount smilingly to the gallows and refuse even to allow their eyes to be bandaged. Promise that you will wipe off the stain of deti-leti, that you will die to restore your sisters and wives to their full dignity and freedom. Then I shall understand that you ready for the freedom of your country." Addressing next the girl students who were present there he said, " As for you young girls, to you I will only say, that if I had a girl under my charge I would rather keep he a maiden all her life than give her away to one who expected a single pice for taking her for his wife."
Young India, 14-2-‘29<
Marriage must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money. The system is intimately connected with caste. So long as the choice is restricted to a few hundred young men or young women of a particular caste, the system will persist no matter what is said against it. The girls or boys or their parents will have to break the bonds of caste if the evil is to be eradicated. Then the age for marrying has also to be raised and the girls have to dare to remain spinsters, if need be, i.e. if they do not get a suitable match. All this means education of a character that will revolutionize the mentality of the youth of the nation. Unfortunately the system of education has no connection with our surroundings which therefore remain practically untouched by the education received by a microscopic minority of the boys and girls of the nation. Whilst therefore whatever can be named, can only be tackled, if there is education which responds to the rapidly changing conditions of the country. How is that so many boys and girls who have been passed through colleges are found unable or unwilling to resist the manifestly evil customs which affects their future so intimately as marriage does? Why should educated girls be found to commit suicide because they are not suited? Of what value is their education if it does not enable them to defy a custom which is wholly indefensible and repugnant to one’s moral sense? The answer is clear. There is something radically wrong in the system of education that fails to arm girls and boys to fight against social or other evils. That education alone is of value which draws out the faculties of a student so as to enable him or her to solve correctly the problems of life in every department.
From a correspondent’s long letter of wail I take the following:
"I am a schoolmaster (aged 67) with lifelong service (46 years) in the educational line, born of a poor but highly respectable Kayastha family in Bengal which knew" better days but is now reduced to poverty. I am blessed (?) * with 7 daughters And two sons; the eldest son aged 20 died in October last leaving behind him his miserable and helpless parents to mourn his loss! He was a promising youth- the only hope of my life. Of my daughters five have already been given in marriage. My sixth and seventh daughters (aged 18 and 16) are yet unmarried. My younger son is a minor aged 11 years. My pay is Rs 60/-. It hardly allows me to make the two ends meet. I have no savings. I have less than nothing, being in debt. The match of my sixth daughter has been settled. The cost of the marriage will be not less than Rs. 900/- in ornaments and dowry (Rs. 300/-). I have a life policy in the Sun Life Assurance of Canada for Rs. 2,000/-. The policy was issued in 1914. The Company has agreed to give me a loan of Rs. 400/- only. It is only half the amount required. I am absolutely helpless in respect of the other half. Could you not help this poor father with the other half?"
This letter is one out of many such. The majority of letters are written in Hindi. But we know that English education has made things no better for parents of daughters. In some cases they have become worse in that the market price of possible young men who would suit an English educated daughter of an English educated father suffers an appreciable increase.
In a case like the Bengali father’s the best help that can be rendered is not a loan or a gift of the required sum, but it should consist in persuading and strengthening the parent to refuse to purchase a match for his daughter but choose or let the daughter choose one who would marry her for love, not for money. This means a voluntary extension of the field of choice. There must be a breach in the double wall of caste and province. If India is one and indivisible, surely there should be no artificial divisions creating innumerable little groups which would neither interdine nor intermarry. There is no religion in this cruel custom. It would not do to plead that individuals cannot make the commencement and that they must wait till the whole society is ripe for the change. No reform has ever been brought about except through intrepid individuals breaking down inhuman customs or usages. And after all, what hardships can the schoolmaster suffer if he and his daughters refused to treat marriage as a marketable transaction instead of a status or a sacrament which it undoubtedly is. I would, therefore, advise my correspondent courageously to give up the idea of borrowing or begging and to save the four hundred rupees he can get on his life policy by choosing in consultation with his daughter a suitable husband no matter to what caste or province he belongs.
*The interrogation is the correspondents.
"Why should parents insist on marrying their daughters and for the reason undergo nameless difficulties? If parents were to educate their daughters as they educate their sons, so as to enable them to learn an independent living, they won't have to worry themselves over the selection of husbands for their daughters. My own experience is that when girls have had the opportunity of developing their minds fairly and are able to support themselves in a dignified manner, they have no difficulty, when they are desirous of marrying, in being suitably matched. I must not be understood to be advocating what is called higher education for girls. I know it is not possible for thousands of girls. What I plead for is a training of girls in useful knowledge and some calling that would make them fully confident about their ability to face the world and not to feel dependent upon parents or their future husbands. Indeed I know some girls who, having been deserted by their husbands are today living a dignified life with their husbands because during the period of their desertion they had the good fortune to become self-dependent and to receive a general training. I wish you could emphasise this aspect of the question in considering the difficulties of parents having on their hands daughters of marriageable age."
I heartily endorse the sentiments expressed by my correspondent. Only I had to deal with the case of a parent who had made himself miserable not because he had an incompetent daughter, but because he and perhaps even his daughter wanted to restrict themselves, in the choice of a husband, to their own little caste. The ‘accomplishment’ of the girl was itself a hindrance in this case. If the girl was illiterate, she could have accommodated herself to any young man. But being an accomplished girl, naturally she would need an equally’ accomplished’ husband. It is our misfortune that the sordidness of exacting a price for marrying a girl is not regarded as a decided disqualification. An altogether artificial value is put upon English collegiate education. It covers a multitude of sins. If the definition of ‘accomplishment’ was more sensible than it has become among the classes whose educated young men exact a price for accepting marriage proposals on behalf of girls, the difficulty of selecting suitable matches for girls would be much lessened, if not entirely removed. Whilst therefore I commend the proposal of my fair correspondent to the attention of parents, I must insist on the necessity of breaking down the highly injurious caste barriers. Breaking down the barriers will widen the range of choice and thus in a great measure prevent exactions.
As for marriage against one’s will all I can say is that students should develop sufficient strength of purpose to resist any marriage that is sought to be forced on them. Students should learn the art of standing alone and resisting in every legitimate manner any attempt to force them to do anything against their will, much more so to marry against their will.
deti-leti - dowry system as known in Sindh