Sharanya Misra

Sudha rushed into her room and shut the door close. Putting all her weight against it, she took deep long breaths even as tears threatened to erupt. She determinedly pulled a chair from nearby and lodged it under the handle to jam it. She could hear her husband and mother-in-law banging on it from outside. With shivering hands, she quickly dialled her father’s number. “They will kill me Papa, please take me away from here. They are asking for money again.” Her father asked her to calm down and explained how she must learn to handle her situation better. This was her life, her family now. He pacified her saying he would talk to her in-laws and give them whatever he could. But she had to apologise too. Did she raise her voice again? Had she been adamant again? That’s not how marriages in our society work beta, he said. Sudha’s anger dissipated into meek submissiveness as she heard her Father. Calmly she told him goodbye and stepped out to face her in-laws. An hour later when Sudha’s father received yet another call from her number, he was asked to come pick up her body.

Look around and one can find tons of Sudhas in our society. Each morning as we unfold our newspapers, a new Sudha awaits us with the same old story. Another Sudha succumbing to the terrible realities of dowry marriages – waiting out, tolerating and bearing, in the hope of the day when things would get better, for her own sake and for the sake of her family’s reputation, only to one day finally give in or be compelled to give up. March 2019 – 27 year old Thushara from Kerala died weighing 20 Kg after starvation by in- laws. June 2019 – Aditya Bajaj and family were convicted for driving his wife Deepika to suicide in 2009. Yet again June 2019 – Jaswinder Kaur’s husband and in-laws were booked for poisoning her. She had just been married in Feb. Sadly, her family had pacified her and sent her to her marital home when she reached out to them. July 2019 – Vineeta’s husband was convicted for her death in 2013 and Pinki’s husband was booked for setting her on fire over dowry demands. Just a few examples. Stats from 2017 say every day about 21 girls in India die Dowry Deaths.

Each time I read such a story, my heart goes out to the girl and her family. But a tiny angry thought flares up in my mind, this could have been avoided.

Most dowry deaths are not a result of just a single demand from the girl’s husband or in-laws. They are a result of months or years even, of repeated harassment, often beginning before the marriage itself. And yet, parents choose to give in, time and again, until finally the day comes when they no longer can. While I admire the tenacity with which these families fight for their lost daughter’s justice after her death, I wonder why they don’t draw from this strength to support her while she still lived.

If you have watched Prime Original ‘Made in Heaven’, you would probably remember the dowry episode as one of the most impactful. While, thankfully, the bride Priyanka had the maturity to walk away from the wedding upon learning of the groom’s demands, what struck me the most was her parents’ reaction. They decided to give in. To an unreasonable demand. Made at the wedding venue. And these were parents of a modern, smart, educated girl, very much capable of living life on her terms. I wonder what makes parents do that? Is it because they are embarassed to stop the wedding before the guests? Is it because they are worried about all the expenses already put into the wedding arrangements? Or is it because they do not want to spoil their daughter’s happiness on what is supposedly the ‘D Day’ of her life? Maybe a mix of them all. But I think the biggest reason behind their behaviour is the concern that no one would marry a girl whose marriage is broken once, that no matter what the backstory, the blame of a broken wedding would undoubtedly fall on the girl’s shoulders. What an irony. A step that is taken to protect their daughter’s future only pushes her deeper into the abyss of a terrible marriage awaiting her.

So where exactly lies the root of this problem? Is it in the greed of the boy’s family? Is it in their claim to superiority bred by years of patriarchy? Is it in the boy’s thought that this is normal, that he deserves a bonus for having chosen this particular girl? After all that’s what he grows up hearing, isn’t it? Yes. The problem lies in all of these. But maybe we should dig deeper? Maybe what is needed is a look into the minds of the daughter’s parents. In their allegiance to society’s norms no matter how regressive they may be. In their deference to following the rituals of the world, “because that is just how it is“. Afterall, why do the parents of a girl submit? Why aren’t they willing to fight for her- fight to not let her get married to depraved men and families, fight to help her get out of a trecherous marriage, fight to give her the moral support she craves to take such a huge step? What stops them?

Just look at some of the thoughts that have been hardwired into our brains when it comes to daughters, for answers.
1. Daughters are a ‘burden’ and ‘kanyadaan’ is the greatest ‘punya’ of them all.
So much so that we are desperate to ‘give’ our daughters away, no matter the cost. So what if she is being given away to death, right? The thought of a married/unmarried daughter sitting at her ‘mayka’ terrifies us, and we would rather deal with the ‘consequences’ later, having fulfilled this significant duty of getting the daughter married first.

2. The biggest day in a girl’s (and her parents’) life is her wedding day.
Not her graduation, not her first job, not her first car, her promotions, her awards…Nope. It is the day when she fulfills her ‘destiny’ and goes to her ‘real’ home. She is, afterall, ‘paraya dhan’ – an object with first one owner and then another, isn’t she?

3. A girl is only ‘completed’ by marriage, and of course, ‘a good boy’.
No matter how accomplished a girl may be, it astounds me that the parents believe they have to part with money so that ‘the good boy’ they have found her can be ‘reserved’ for their daughter. Like a booking amount being paid for a new home.

4. It is only natural for daughters to adjust in their marital home.
Each time a young girl gathers the courage to return home to her parents, she is simply lectured on how she must adjust, as that is ‘the way’ and sent back to her husband. Adjust. Do as the husband and in-laws say. And what is the subtle message alongside this? Adjust where you are, because you have no where else to go, nowhere to call your own.

We sing praises of Indian culture. But of what use is a culture that alienates a daughter from her family? That gives her an inferior position in marriage that is meant to be a relationship of equals? That compels parents to ask her to return, even if against her wishes and her well being? That prevents parents from extending their support and giving her the confidence to end a toxic relationship, for fear of social mockery?

I think it’s time. Time for parents of smart, willful, headtstrong young girls to question their beliefs. To ask themselves if they are moving ahead with the times. To stop in their tracks each time the above thoughts pop into their minds and introspect if they even hold valid today considering their daughter’s potential and value. A change is needed in our thoughts. And the change must begin right at the start, right from the day a girl is born and parents question themselves what kind of upbringing they want to impart to her.
1. Invest in your daughter’s education and career!
Marriage is not the fabled end of it all. Make your daughter self sufficient and capable. Give her the opportunity to complete herself before declaring she is completed by another. Give her the possibility of stepping out and fending for herself if the need arises.
2. Do not treat her as a burden, for she isn’t one!
The only reason daughters fall short of sons and could be financial liabilities is because your upbringing says so. Her mind is as capable as that of any other. Teach her that right from the beginning.
3. Stand by her!
We make the society, not the other way around. Trust your daughter and honour her happiness over social compulsions. If you believe she is complete by herself, she will believe so too!
4. Give her every opportunity you would have given a son!
Because that is her right. And because that is the only way we can put a stop to this inferiority complex that a girl’s parents feel, ultimately pushing them into dangerous moves such as dowry.

The butterfly effect talks of ripples of difference that can be triggered by one small change. All we need to stop social evils like dowry and regressive prejudices against our daughters is a change in the mindset we have while raising them in the first place. And maybe instead of waiting for society to approve, we simply go ahead and make this change in our own homes, for our own daughters?

For, maybe then, a day will dawn when ‘kanya-janm’ and not ‘kanya-daan’ will be considered the greatest punya of them all.

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