Immobility and 'Unfreedom': Dowry's Violence in the Lives of Poor Indian Women

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The paper discusses the traditional Hindu custom of dowry in its modern manifestations, with a focus on case study in Calcutta. Dowry, once a custom of Hindu upper castes of India, has, especially since Independence (1947), become pervasive across all castes, classes and religious minorities today. In a cultural context where men are traditionally held in higher esteem than women, dowry (in cash, gold, and in kind) given by the bride's family to the groom’s, finds a pernicious niche in "modern" India. Where existing scholarship discusses the ongoing murder of young brides for dowry, there is little that comments on the violence that this custom perpetrates in terms of ill health, exhaustion, the threat of sexual violence, and mental anguish in the lives of poor women. Often single parents, these women work at menial jobs to pay for rent, and family expenses, as well as dowry for a daughter. The abuse of dowry has exacerbated the increasingly female face of poverty in India, and has added to the violence of poverty itself in women’s lives. Where nationalist and political rhetoric promotes mobility for its citizens, poor middle-aged women are effectively immobilized by having pay dowry, and "violated" economically, in health, and in hope.