Redefining choices and priorities
Socially, dowry originated in the idea of parents making an investment that would give the woman — traditionally the dependent in a marriage — financial autonomy, thus strengthening her bargaining power in her new family. This system though became skewed in purpose and the husband’s family started bargaining and demanding wealth. This is one of the main reasons for female foeticide in India, leading to the ban of prenatal sex determination. This though does not discourage a largely patriarchal society to bend the rules and find ways to perform sex determination scans. Though dowry system has been in the wane, the social construct of a woman being treated as a commodity has not declined.
The fascination and fetish for gold is a pan Indian phenomenon. Even with fluctuating and soaring prices, the lure for gold, especially among middle class families, remains the same. The status of a family is most often assumed by the display of gold on a woman’s body during a function or get together.
When a child is born, the family starts planning the amount of money and gold required to get the child married; much before the child can identify with the prescribed gender definitions. Many discussions and dialogues revolve around how to make money for the wedding, more so if it is a girl. While we talk and discuss about progressive mentalities and owning up spaces and choices, this retrograde thought that is forced on a girl slowly cements the belief in her to wish for unreasonable display of wealth during her wedding.
We rarely see parents encouraging girls to get the education they wish for, to travel, and to see the world, and be independent in their own terms. The standard conversations in a household hover around girls acquiring a degree to find a suitable boy, not for the girl’s choices or independence. It is thrust upon them from a young age that their education only improves the prospect of a better marital match. Thus, the primary intention of bringing up a girl is to get her married and to bear children and rear a family.
I have come across people who tell their children to grow up decently until they are matched with a suitable prospect and that they are free to do whatever they wish to, after marriage. The dialogue does not end there. The fathers highlighting the point that until marriage it is their responsibility that the girl be decent and after marriage it is the ‘headache’ of the husband. Such conversations, sadly, are still common in households.
The larger damaging message that comes with it is that a girl’s identity and character is to fulfil a man’s desire! It is hence also imperative to note that the weight of expectation is so heavy on girls’ shoulders, that even if the marriage does not work out, girls prefer to hush it up and suffer in silence rather than stand up for themselves.
The pressure that a broken marriage would ruin the family status forces women to stay in abusive and destructive marriages. In many cases, when girls try open up to elders in the family, prompt would come the advice and command to adjust and make it work. Women are never taught to stand up against abuses that comes in various forms - mental, emotional, verbal, physical and cyber; subtle or severe.
Isn’t it time girls and boys stood up against these ostentatious display of wealth during weddings, the system of dowry (illegal, but still being practiced in the guise of parents’ love for their daughter), and pushing girls into marriages when they least want it, if we are aiming for an empowered, educated and healthy next generation? How much more would it take to realise that education and skilling are the energies to be spent on, to have gender neutral and gender equal spaces?
Yes, the over-all societal belief and tendencies have always been to see one gender as weaker, it should also be noted that many girls and women take gender to their advantage and demand and dictate terms. While there are many parallel fights being fought for equal voices and recognitions, it should also be said there are quite a large number of women who prefer to play second fiddle to men, without wanting their own voice or choice.
Their stability and confidence, many a times, is drawn from the solace that many things are being done for them by the men in the house, be it fathers, brothers, or partners. As much as we blame the men folk for being possessive and demanding and dictating, let us also open our eyes around us to see how many educated, able, capable women around us ‘refuse’ to do things independently and depend on their fathers and partners even for simple things such as going to a grocery store or visiting a doctor.
Husbands who see their spouses as equal and who encourage them to be independent are often scorned by the spouses. There are many women who own a driving license and have never driven a vehicle. The answer comes promptly that the husbands do not let them drive or do not have the confidence in them. This is akin to a person deciding to stay at the shore and learn swimming.
Hence it would be worthy to understand that we still have a larger share of women who prefer to not utilise their capabilities even when they have the space and choice, but prefer to live in the shadow of their partners. And these women do the larger damage of talking disgracefully about other women for not confirming to societal structures, conditioning, or demands.
As soon as a girl is past the present marriageable age of 18 comes the taunts and constant questioning from neighbours and friends on marriage prospects. The pressure leads to girls dropping off their studies, wishing away their dream of a degree /job, and being pushed into marriages that demand them to be indoors taking care of their new family.
The younger the girls are, it is easier to control and blackmail them into marriage and childbearing. We rarely see or hear this when it concerns a boy. While the boy can wait till 30 or 35 years, the girl has to get married before 25 after which the society passes comments questioning her character, and many a times even doubting if she has any physical or mental illness that she has not found a match yet.
Why do we still have different gender-driven age criteria as marriageable age? While men can choose to live alone, marry when they wish to, or never be married, a girl taking such a stance is branded as a black sheep or a family breaker.
It should be added here that the age-old custom of the boy and his relatives visiting the girl’s family to see and ‘check her out’ is the most demeaning of practices one can think of. Even in 2020, families resort to such practices that is such a huge let down to the individuality of a girl.
It is time we understood that education is THE most important tool to own, irrespective of gender. Being independent is the need of the hour. Liberation and independence to think, act, spend and choose are vital to forming healthy homes, conducive environments, and respectable individuals. If a girl needs to be respected, she needs to be financially and mentally independent to make her choices. With age, comes the knowledge and strength for it; to understand and evaluate one needs, capabilities and priorities. Let our girls enjoy that age and space as much as our boys.
(The author is an educationist and founder of Zocio, an organisation working extensively in the social emotional learning space. You can reach her at email@example.com.)