|Title:||Marriage, Modernity and Sources of the Self: Bengali Women, c. 1870-1956|
Departments of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
I examine the rise, spread and critiques of dowry in the context of the modernization of the institution of marriage in urban, colonial, Bengal. The practice of dowry best characterized the monetization of marriage in terms of modern market phenomena. Yet, as it became predominant in Bengal to the exclusion of brideprice from the 1870s dowry defied market rationales in every way. It was a peculiar economic phenomenon, one that did not give any material/economic benefits to its giver. Dowry, I have argued, represented a structure of coercive social power exercised upon and perceived by the bridal family, particularly the bride's father. Failure to meet dowry demands could unleash oppression upon the bride as well as result in a loss of face for the bride's father in the event that he had an unmarried, grown-up daughter at home.
In my effort to comprehend the genealogy behind this practice, I began by tracing the growth in Bengal from the 1870s of what in contemporary parlance was referred to as a "marriage market." The latter was marked among other things by the transition from traditional matchmakers (ghataks) to matrimonial advertisements and marriage bureaus. Marriage advertisements helped in fostering an element of competition among bridal families for prospective grooms and were among one of the prime factors responsible for the rise of dowry. Yet another was the emergence of a very particular type of Hindu wedding aesthetic - marriages characterized by elaborate feasts, uniform rituals, and most importantly an emphasis on certain stereotypical roles for the families of the bride and groom, something that promoted an inequality of power relations. Together, all these factors prepared the ground for unabashed demands for dowry from bridal families.
Through a close reading of the "cultural" critiques of dowry, published from the time of the first known dowry suicide in 1914 by a young Brahmin girl named Snehalata Mukhopadhyay, I have attempted to understand why fathers continued to want to pay dowry for their daughters thereby making themselves economically vulnerable and endangering their daughter's physical and emotional well-being. I have attempted to understand why financial insolvency is a lesser worry than the stigma of an unmarried daughter, even when it might have been cheaper for her to continue to remain a dependent. The humanist critiques of dowry, I argue, did nothing to foster economic independence for women. It was a skewed gender ideology that limited the utility of the humanist critique promoted by literary authors of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.