Rasheeda Bhagat

Dowry deaths in God’s own country

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on July 05, 2021

Growing anger   -  Mahinsha S

Despite Kerala’s impressive social and human development, it still has a long way to go in women’s empowerment

There is something grotesque about a State like Kerala known for its matriarchal traditions, reporting three suspected dowry deaths in just one week. Expectedly there is furore, with questions being raised about the real status of the women in the States despite its impressive record in social and human development.

Despite high female literacy, both political and economic empowerment of women in Kerala is modest. There are only three women ministers in the 21-member State cabinet, and the exclusion of former Health Minister, Shailaja, who had hit global headlines for her effective containment of Corona, raised eyebrows.

In the last week of June, 24-year-old Archana was found burnt to death in her flat in Thiruvanathapuram. Hers was a love marriage, but within three months her father-in-law demanded ₹3 lakh as dowry, which Archana’s father could not give. Archana’s death is seen as being possible related to dowry.

Archana, a qualified nurse, was “not allowed” to work after marriage. A pointer to the relatively lower female work force in Kerala despite its educated women.

Vismaya, also 24, an Ayurveda student, was found dead in her husband’s home. She had apparently sent several WhatsApp messages to her family on dowry harassment and brutal beating — her husband’s family wasn’t happy about the kind of car she had brought in dowry. Her husband has been arrested.

The third case relates to Suchitra, only 19, who was found dead in her husband’s house; the police is probing the probable suicide, but dowry harassment is suspected to be the cause.

Even as ghastly details of these three dowry-related deaths were emerging, there was the horrendous incident on a Malayalam live TV show, concerning MC Josephine, Kerala Women’s Commission chief. The show had invited women facing domestic harassment or violence to call and directly complain to the Commission. One anonymous woman from Kochi called from a patchy line with background noise. A visibly irritated Josephine asked her rudely if she had complained to the police. When she answered in the negative, Josephine snapped in Malayalam: Enna pinne anubhavicho, which loosely translates to “Then go suffer” or “Phir bhugto” in Hindi.

This is something which has been thrown at generations of women in their own families when they dare to question, defy or complain. But for a women’s commission chief to chide a victim thus, expectedly incurred the wrath of Kerala women and triggered an angry backlash in social media. She has since apologised and stepped down, but imagine what would have been the caller’s fate. Particularly if her harassers had recognised her voice.

Dowry demands

It is agonising that the parents of a daughter are constantly called upon to meet the greedy demands of her husband’s family — car, land, gold, diamonds and what not. And deeply distressing to find the deep rooted prevalence of such societal norms and social acceptance in a progressive State like Kerala, which had legislated against dowry, through the Kerala Dowry Prevention Act way back in 1961. Dowry continues to cause young women’s harassment, violence, torture, and even their lives. Pay up, or die, is clearly the ugly message.

But the crux of the dowry issue boils down to the woman being the inferior partner in a marriage — her lower status needs to be compensated by payment through car, land, gold, house and anything else the greedy in-laws may demand.

Is the gold rush triggered by the Gulf-induced economic boom in Kerala responsible for dowry demands going up? And this is happening not in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or UP, but in India’s showpiece State with 100 per cent literacy.

Another connected, and equally obnoxious issue is shaming a woman for her dark skin, and this has surfaced from a State known for its erudition and intellectual culture — West Bengal.

Bengali actress Shruti Das, who was viciously trolled on social media for her dusky skin, with allegations made against her character, has filed a police complaint. Her “sin”: getting the lead role in a popular Bengali serial. Her bigger “sin”: getting a great role despite her dark skin.

It is heartening to know that just as Nandita Das had once taken up this issue headlong, Shruti too has filed a police complaint. Women have to fight back. Period.

Published on July 05, 2021

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