EPW    Special Articles May 29, 1999

Women's Property Rights in South India:

A Review

Kanakalatha Mukund

Property Rights: Basic Issues

Gender and Property – Some Theoretical Insights

Traditional Property Rights in Law and in Practice

Matrilineal Systems in Transition

Women as a Class?

Stridhanam and Dowry: Present Reality



RESEARCH on women’s property rights in India takes us into a world where the past merges into the present, and straddles the disciplines of sociology, law and economics within a framework of gender studies. This paper concentrates on south India because this is a region where, historically, women had enjoyed some property rights in contrast to women in north India. The issues raised in this review relate to customary rights – that is the property rights allowed to women in different regions of south India under customary practices, as compared to the rights allowed under the traditional legal systems, the historical evolution of these rights and how interventions from the state and other agencies have redefined these at several points of time. We conclude with an analysis of the changing face of ‘dowry’ in present-day social arrangements.

Property Rights: Basic Issues

A classification of the ways in which property can be acquired would form a useful basis for identifying the research agenda in this field. Basically, property can be acquired through gifts, through inheritance, and through work/earnings. The last also presupposes the ability to work and earn, which requires some level of skill/education, and/or access to productive resources (land, capital). For women, these prerequisites are also decided and defined through social-cultural prescriptions. Bina Agarwal [1994: 11] argues that land is the most important productive resource for women in India, and studies women’s rights to land focusing on six issues: “gender relations and a household’s property status; gender relations and women’s property status; the distinction between ownership and control of property; the distinctiveness of land as property; what is meant by rights in land; and prospects of non-land-based livelihoods”.

Of these, the question of ownership and control over property is crucial for understanding the unequal relationship between men and women. Krishnaji [1992: 213] has pointed out that “... whatever be the spirit of law and custom, women fail in general to obtain rights to ownership of (or control over) land”, adding that even if women were the formal legal owners, management of the land was taken over by men, “depriving women not only of headship in a formal sense, but of much else”.

Gender and Property – Some Theoretical Insights

Women’s rights to inherit, own and control property are determined primarily by the values and norms which are socially acceptable, as well as the mechanisms of intra-household decision-making and distribution. Economic theory seems to have little to offer in understanding these forces. Institutional economics is, by and large, concerned with how institutions develop and decisions are made outside of market forces. The ‘old’ school of institutional economics, especially, “concentrates on law, property rights and organisations, their evolution and impact on legal and economic power, economic transactions and the distribution of income. Here, institutions are seen largely as the outcome of formal and informal processes of conflict resolution, the criterion of success being whether the institution has generated a ‘reasonable value’ or ‘workable mutuality’ out of conflict.” [Rutherford 1996: ch 1].

One obvious criticism of such theoretical models where the focus is on ‘rational’ behaviour and optimality is that they ignore the role of power. Even when the concept of ‘power’ is incorporated into the analysis, it is more in the sense of ‘force’ rather than of power relations. Thus, economists who have enlarged on this start with the premise that property rights may evolve from a state when no prior institutions exist, and how then a workable accommodation of accepted property rights is arrived at to control a given resource. Would-be violators of this accommodation consensus would have to face the consequences because costs would be imposed on such individuals. Equally, if through a more effective use of force an individual can gain more than his share, he will do so, and “...potential force is the relevant constraint underlying any initial agreements ... which allocate wealth among competitors ... i e no one will accept less than they can gain by the use of force” [Papandreou 1994: 209-210].

The basic argument that, in any society, customary property rights are evolved to lessen transaction costs to individuals is perhaps quite valid in as far as it goes. But this ignores the ideology of gender which places differential values on male vs female ownership and rights. The primary objective in inheritance systems in Indian society has been to preserve property, especially landed property, intact for male heirs. Bina Agarwal (1994: 11) however cautions that “In this emphasis on the ideological, the possible material basis of this subordination, or the dialectical link between the material context and gender ideology, is seldom recognised. And, culture is often characterised as ‘given’ rather than in the process of constant reformulation, or as an arena of contestation.”

Further, the concept of ‘private’ or ‘individual’ property rights in economic theory essentially relates to a household unit rather than to intra-family arrangements which is what women’s property rights are all about, and also assumes that intra-household transactions are usually optimal and equitable. Gary Becker argued: “In my approach, the ‘optimal reallocation’ results from altruism and voluntary contribution, and the ‘group preference function’ is identical to that of the altruistic head, even when he does not have sovereign power” [Quoted by Sen 1990: 131]. On the other hand, a very large number of studies, including those by Sen, have established that the division of resources and the access to health care, education and other services within a family are strongly biased in favour of men, and disadvantageous to women and the girl child, so that the ‘altruistic head’ and ‘optimal reallocation’ are both the entirely mythical creations of a few economists.

In actual practice, intra-family allocations are really located in a culture of patriarchy rooted in patrilineal, patrilocal (or virilocal) practices, which define the roles of women vis-a-vis men in economic and non-economic spheres. Rights for women are mediated through family relationships and deeply inculcated perceptions that women have of themselves, their interests and what constitutes their well-being within their families. Stressing this, Sen points out that the utilitarian approach is also inadequate as a measure of welfare since objective facts of relative deprivations cannot be accommodated in the “utilitarian metrics of happiness”. He goes on to add that “The embarrassment, if there is one here, is for utilitarianism (and for welfarism in general) and not for those who insist that the underfed ... or overworked person is in some real sense deeply deprived no matter what the utility metrics say” [Sen 1990: 127-128].

Alternatively, Sen finds that intra-household allocations represent ‘co-operative conflict’, since there is a co-existence of “extensive conflicts and pervasive co-operation” in family decision-making. For explaining this process, Sen proposes a modification of bargaining models. The premise of bargaining models is that the two contending parties agree to a solution (‘collusive arrangement’) which may be somewhat adverse to one party. But, this choice is more acceptable than the ‘break-down’ point which is disadvantageous to both. To understand gendered responses in family choices, Sen adds three further ‘directional features’ – (a) break-down well-being response; (b) perceived interest response; and, (c) perceived contribution response. The break-down position indicates a person’s vulnerability in the bargaining process so that the more vulnerable will end up with a collusive solution which is less favourable to his/her well-being. When a person’s perceived interest places less value on his/her well-being, also, the collusive arrangement will be less favourable. On the other hand, when a person’s contribution to the family is perceived to be higher, the arrangement will be more favourable to that person. Sen points out that (a) and (b) are particularly true for women in traditional societies, while (c) is true for men.

These perceived responses are also derived from the social learning of ideas about the value and place of women in their societies. The notions that women are entitled to, and only deserve, an unequal share of resources, as well as other forms of discrimination are learnt from childhood, and perpetuated as women themselves accept this valuation of themselves and their contribution to a family and their position in the family.1 [Papanek 1990] While both Papanek and Sen are concerned with explaining the short-term dynamics of intra-family allocations, it has to be seen if this can be extended to long-term positions which are involved in the division of property resources between men and women. Agarwal extends Sen’s analysis to women’s rights to land, though she disagrees with Sen’s conceptualisation of “perceived interest” response. She argues that women’s compliance with practices which disadvantage them does not arise out of an acceptance of such discrimination, and there are many covert ways in which they resist this [Agarwal 1994: 56-57].

Combining Sen’s and Papanek’s analyses in concrete terms, it can be argued that women themselves accept unequal (or no) property rights for girls because of the perception that girls will “go away when they get married” (a commonly heard expression in north India), because male heirs are considered to have a ‘natural’ right to property, and because, in their later years, they (the women) will automatically be looked after by their sons.

Traditional Property Rights in Law and in Practice

In the ancient texts of jurisprudence and schools of law in India, by and large, the codification of property rights was an important legal question which was discussed at length, and this discussion also extended to the rights of women. These texts, like all legal treatises, were neither unambiguous nor transparent, and several commentaries by later scholars, down to the medieval period, form the corpus of Hindu law on property rights. There are two major schools of legal doctrine – the Mitakshara and the Dayabhaga. The latter was the system followed mainly in eastern India – Bengal and Assam. The Mitakshara was further subdivided into the Mithila, Benaras, Dravida (Madras) and Bombay schools. [Banerjee 1915: Lecture VII; Altekar 1959: chs 8,9]. The significance of these legal systems, though ancient, must be understood in proper perspective, since they formed the legal basis for women’s property rights up till 1956 when the Hindu Succession Act was passed.

Turning to the ancient legal rights, where women were concerned, whatever was gifted to a girl at the time of her marriage by her natal family, and the gifts given when she was proceeding to her husband’s family (by other members of the family) were stated to be her property outright, or ‘stridhan’. Whatever was given to her as a gift of love by her husband or her in-laws (‘saudayika’, ‘pritidana’ or ‘pritidatta’) was also included in stridhan.2 Where the proprietary rights over such gifts were concerned, there was near unanimity among the two schools.

The real problem began where inheritance rights were concerned since this had to do with immovable property, especially land. Women could not inherit such property mainly because a patriarchal society wanted to keep intact properties within patrilineal families. While the Mitakshara is generally considered to be more liberal in acknowledging that when women inherited property this could also be stridhan [Banerjee 1915: 310-335], basically women had, at best, only usufruct rights in family property. This, of course, has tremendous relevance even for contemporary society since this denies women access to the most important productive resource in the Indian economy, viz, land. Widows normally had the right to maintenance by the heirs of the husbands, and virtually no share in the family property, except in cases where the husband had already separated from the joint family. In the case of a widow without sons, the Mitakshara gives a conditional and restrictive right to the husband’s property, whereas the Dayabhaga gives her this right unconditionally [Banerjee 1915: 222-226].3 Even now, when a son in a joint family dies, the right of his widow and her children to the family property is governed by the Dayabhaga or Mitakshara system, whichever prevailed in this region [Agarwal 1994: 212].

When we turn to the income earned by women, especially from their own labour or work, the ancient legal texts are unanimous that this belonged not to the women, but to the family. ‘Katyayana’, in fact, specifically mentions that what women earned as spinners or in other work did not constitute stridhan. This last is interesting, since till very recent times, spinning was one of the major home-based income earning activities of women. The basic justification for these injunctions was that in a system of virilocal residence, women (and their time/work) were essentially under the control of the husband or his family, and therefore whatever was earned or acquired under these conditions naturally belonged to the family. This restriction in fact applied not merely to women’s earnings, but also to anything they would receive as gifts while residing with their husbands. This again is still relevant in the contemporary context, for many studies show that normally nearly all of a woman’s earnings are absorbed by the family and are devoted to the maintenance of the family, whereas only about 60 per cent of a man’s earnings go towards the family.

The historical evidence from south India, especially the Tamil region, suggests that women had considerably stronger rights to property than indicated in the legal texts, and the jurists themselves were aware of the variance between the prescribed rights and customary rights. Women clearly owned property and had the authority to alienate this property – money or land – through gifts or sales. Two tenth century inscriptions which refer to land gifted to women to form their property or stridhanam can be cited to establish that women’s rights to own land were well-recognised. One refers to the gift of land by a man to his wife, a ‘brahmani’ [South Indian Inscriptions xiii: no 251], and the other to a brahmani’s stridhanam land [South Indian Inscriptions xix: no 280].4 While most of these property-owning women were from the royal families or other ruling elite classes, working women (like temple dancers, maidservants) and women from other non-elite castes and communities are often mentioned in the inscriptions as owners of property who had made donations to the temple [Mukund 1992: WS3-WS4].

Though the two inscriptions cited above refer to brahmin women, the custom of passing on a small amount of land as stridhanam to a daughter on her marriage was prevalent among all land-owning castes in Tamil Nadu, and this land was known as her ‘manjal kani’ (literally turmeric land). This land was inherited by the woman’s daughters so that the female line of inheritance was preserved, though women had neither any control over the property, nor anything beyond usufruct rights.5 Anthropologists are agreed that the motivation behind the practice of endogamy within family groups in south India with marriages between maternal uncle and niece, and cross-cousins is to retain family control over such transferred property.

The practice of giving stridhanam to a daughter also extends to castes who are not land-based. The nattukottai chettiars or nagarattar are a premier trading community. Chettiar women normally receive large dowries (in cash), jewellery, etc, when they get married. Nishimura states that the part of the dowry which is the ‘sirdanam’ (or stridhanam) is kept in the name of the woman and remains her property until her death,6 and is often saved, along with whatever she can save through her frugal management of the housekeeping and other incomes to constitute, in turn the dowry of her daughters [Nishimura 1994: 248, 250]. Nishimura’s study, however, clearly shows that women never really controlled this stridhanam, which was managed and invested by their fathers [Nishimura 1998: 114 ff].

In all communities of Tamil Nadu women continue to have a close relationship with their natal households even after they get married. In addition to stridhanam, they continue to receive gifts from their families, especially in the first year of marriage on various occasions, and during the first pregnancy and childbirth. These continue even until the marriage/s of their daughter/s. I have argued that while all these gifts may not be very significant in terms of value (though some undoubtedly are), they do constitute a recognised right to call their family property7 [Mukund 1992: WS6].

Among the chettiars, the woman’s natal family generally provides for her and her children when she lives in a joint family, and continues to give considerable financial support even when she sets up her own home. These duties are taken over by the brother on the death of the parents [Nishimura 1994: 249; 1998: 113-114]. Also, unlike most other upper class caste groups, chettiar women have always engaged in economic transactions in their own right, which also become their own property, passed down to their daughters [Nishimura 1998: 150-151]. Looking at all these facets, Nishimura concludes that the status of chettiar women is very high.8

The custom of the daughter getting a share of family property as stridhanam when she gets married prevails in other areas of south India also. In parts of coastal Andhra Pradesh, women inherit a portion of family land, which is known as ‘pasupu kumkumamu’. Among the lingayats of Karnataka also, the daughter would be given some movable property, and land (if the family is rich enough). She also retains strong links with her parental home after marriage, and receives customary gifts and care on various occasions [Bradford 1985: 281-283]. The custom of endowing a daughter with a part of the family property on marriage had continued till recent times, when the practice of a negotiated dowry began to dominate marriage gift-giving.

At this juncture it is also useful to review the current legal status of women with respect to inheritance rights. In the absence of a common civil code, provisions regarding inheritance rights vary for different religions and communities. Under the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, daughters were given equal rights as sons in their father’s self-earned property if the father died intestate. They, however, had no rights to ancestral property. More progressive legislation was passed in Andhra Pradesh – the Hindu Succession (Andhra Pradesh Amendment) Act, 1986 – which gives equal rights to women as men in ancestral property. Daughters can also force a partition of ancestral property if the share is denied or delayed. While such legislation certainly enhances the rights of women to inherit property, what this has actually achieved needs to be explored. How many women, even educated women, know their legal rights or demand them? Has this legislation resulted in any significant shift in attitudes to women’s rights to inherit property, or has it merely led to men making wills excluding daughters from inher

Matrilineal Systems in Transition

Kerala, as a predominantly matrilineal society, gives us a unique opportunity to study the real position and status of women in a non-patriarchal system. Yet, studies have pointed out that in matrilineal, matrilocal Kerala, the official head of the household was a man and not the woman [Gough in Schneider and Gough 1972: chs 6 and 7]. The domestic management of the ‘taravad’ or extended household was under the control of the matriarch. However, Gough points out, the taravad really represented a property group, and all the economic activity and decisions were controlled by the ‘karanavan’, the oldest male head of the household. She also notes that unless the matriarch was distinctly older than the karanavan, she was definitely subordinate to his authority. Thus, norms of male supremacy were maintained even in matrilineal society.

Arunima, however, argues that the debasement of the authority of the woman head of household of the taravad had come about because of interventions by the colonial state, and was the result of patrilineal encoding of matrilineal customs under British rule in 19th century Malabar which served to drastically alter the traditional rights and powers of nayar women within the taravad. She points out that the traditional matrilineal system among the nayars was very flexible with many local variations. In many cases, women were heads of the taravads. They could establish separate households or taravads. Individual shares in the taravad could be sold by a member of the family. Women could not only have a share in the revenue of the taravad, but also retain unilineal succession to properties demarcated for them. All these local variations were accepted even by the British in the early part of the nineteenth century.

By the middle of the century, however, these customs were redefined by treating nambudiri patrilineal norms as the legal standard. The existing fluid system became inflexible under the British, and two main changes took place. First was the assumption that women were the mere conduits through whom descent and inheritance were traced, but they did not possess any distinct rights to property. Second, the taravad could not be partitioned. The property was held to be inalienable, and the karanavan was the legitimate guardian of all other members, which was in the natural order of things [Arunima 1998: 114-119]. She also notes that “Such a patriarchal interpretation of the customs of the matrilineal community had its roots in the steady process of transforming Malabar’s customary practices which used not only brahminical precepts, but also Roman law and laws of equity in equal measure...” [Arunima 1996: 297].

The shift to more patriarchal family arrangements were obviously gaining ground in Kerala as the more natural form of social organisation even in Travancore state, which was not under British dominion. Among the non-dominant caste of ezhavas in Kerala, the intervention came from their own social reform movement led by Sree Narayana Guru against a background of more broad-based changes in their occupations and their traditional agricultural economy. The Ezhava Law Committee and various reform groups were strongly in favour of the patriarchal family norm as the ideal, and felt that all ezhavas should shift towards a patrilineal system. Velayudhan [1998], in conclusion, argues that “This ideological construct weighed heavily against women, depicting women as dependent and subordinate members in the family and men as heads of household.”

Women as a Class?

In a discussion of the property rights of women, the question of class differentiation among women also needs to be raised. Obviously, all women do not belong to the working class, and there are sharp differences across women from different backgrounds. This seems particularly evident in the present day when education and changing values are empowering women of a certain class. At the same time, Agarwal notes, a woman’s class position is usually defined through that of men – particularly marriage. A husband or some property would raise it, while widowhood or divorce would lower it. There are, she argues, “significant commonalities between women which cut across derived class privilege (or deprivation)...” – especially, the vulnerability to violence, the responsibility for all domestic work and childcare, gender inequalities in legal rights, and most of all, “the risks of marital breakdown due to which even women of rich peasant households can be left destitute and forced to seek wage work, reflecting their propertyless state and economic vulnerability as women” [Agarwal 1994: 14-15].

That women do constitute a class by themselves is also evident from the study of mukkuvar women [Ram 1992]. The mukkuvar, as Ram explains, are a fishing caste on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu. (They are also found in northern Sri Lanka). They are Catholics and basically occupy a low status in terms of caste hierarchy because of their occupation. They are also a more egalitarian community because most of them are poor, nor do they depend on a privately owned resource like land for their livelihood. Yet, Ram points out, the egalitarianism is confined to men only. Women are excluded not only from the sea, which is a common resource, but also from “non-material means of production” – i e, “... the transmission of specialised skills in the operation of fishing gear, knowledge of fishing grounds, the breeding habits of the fish, navigation skills, astronomy, and so on... . The acquisition of these skills is in turn regulated by another key component of incorporeal property: the rights to space... . norms governing the sexual distribution of space on land in fact pre-empt the question of who has rights to the sea at all. These norms prohibit women from gaining access to the sea and even to the spaces most intimately associated with the work of fishing: the sea front and the beach” [Ibid 47-48]. Thus it is gender relations rather than status in terms of caste, class or occupation which determine women’s access to productive resources, and thus to incomes and to ownership rights.

Stridhanam and Dowry9: Present Reality

One of the most pronounced changes that has taken place in social arrangements in the last few decades which has had a profound impact on the status of women has been the spread of the practice of paying a ‘dowry’ to the bridegrooms by the parents of the bride. Srinivas points out that dowry was common in north India where hypergamy was practised, and the dowry was “integral to hypergamy” [Srinivas 1996: 159-160]. In other words, dowry becomes the price that was paid for the improvement in the status of the girl, as well as her family. On the other hand, in ‘isogamous’ south India, what prevailed was really stridhan. Srinivas also distinguishes between modern dowry, which often becomes a payment of cash to the husband, from traditional dowry, which remained the bride’s property. This transition from a property right as enjoined even in the sastras, to a cash gift to the husband is noted in many disparate communities. There thus seem to be some social forces – changing occupational structures, access to education, urbanisation, etc, – which are changing the character of the most accepted form of women’s property.

Goody and Tambiah have explained dowry as the share of the woman in family property which was given to her at the time of marriage as pre-mortem inheritance. While land is held by the male members, the movables are family property which are given to the daughters. The criticisms of this theoretical analysis are many. Anthropologists point out that this does not take into account the differences in kinship, marriage and inheritance patterns between north and south India. Nor does it really come to terms with the present-day reality of dowry as groom price over which women, by and large, have no control [Upadhyay 1990: 30-34].

Traditionally, in south India, in most non-brahmin (especially peasant) castes, the prevalent custom was the payment of bride price to the father of the bride, presumably as a notional recompense for the loss of a daughter. Even among brahmins where ‘varadakshina’ (or groom fee) was part of the ‘kanyadanam’ (or giving the girl away), the girl was also given land and jewellery and other items as stridhanam or her own property.10

Perhaps the first observer to note this social transformation was Scarlett Epstein [1973; 194-199]. In two study villages in Mandya district of Karnataka, Epstein observed that in 1955-56 all weddings among peasant families involved the payment of bride price to the bride’s family, and the wedding expenses were borne by the bridegroom’s family. In 1970 this had changed totally, with the brides’ families bearing the wedding expenses, in addition to paying a dowry, which Epstein saw as one of the many signs of Sanskritisation among village peasants, especially richer peasants.

Since then many studies have explored the universality of dowry in several castes and communities. The lingayats of Karnataka also followed the traditional south Indian practice of marriage alliances within the close family circle (of uncle-niece and cross-cousins), known as ‘kalluballi’. It was customary for the bride’s family to give a share of the family property as stridhanam, while there was a reciprocal gift-giving from the bridegroom’s family as bridewealth. However, socio-economic polarisation has taken place between the richer families (‘big houses’) and the less affluent ‘small houses’. The big houses essentially became rich in the cotton trade, and now have multiple sources of income also. In these families the custom of reciprocal gift-giving at marriages has changed into payment of varadakshina. Now, this has spread to all families, and Bradford notes that the last recorded instance when bridewealth was paid was in 1950. A concomitant factor is that men are now increasingly turning to professional employment, which seems to justify the demand for dowries [Bradford 1985: 287 ff].

Among the Syrian Christians of Kerala, Susan Visvanathan notes that while ideally stridhanam was intended to be pre-mortem inheritance, in reality it is now money paid for contracting a good marriage alliance. The amounts are increasing, and the marriage takes on the character of hypergamy. A marriage can be arranged only on payment of dowry, which passes to the husband’s family [Visvanathan 1989: 1341-1342].

Among the landowning castes in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh, dowry or ‘katnam’ has become the universal practice. The amounts are large, and often land has to be sold to pay the dowry. This practice of dowry has now spread to even the untouchable castes [Upadhyay 1990: 38]. A great value is placed even in the rural families on urban-based men, and salaried jobs, business and professions are ranked high as occupations, while agriculture is ranked as of low status. So there is competition for urban grooms both from rural as well as urban families. “Both kinds of marriages – the ‘rural-urban hypergamy’ pattern and the ‘urban-urban’ isogamous pattern – rely on the judicious use of dowry as a marriage strategy” [Ibid : 32-43].

Among the mukkuvars, Ram notes, dowry or sirdanam (women’s property) has been transformed into male capital, and the dowry rates go up as the earning capacity of the bridegroom increases [Ram 1992: ch 8]. This, of course, is true of all communities, and a pertinent factor to note is that the dowry does not increase according to the capacity of the family of the girl to make such gifts, but according to the economic potential of the bridegroom.

This shift to dowry is accompanied by a loss of control of the woman over this property, which is now vested with the family of the husband. Ram points out that though Srinivas and other anthropologists like Tambiah often state that, according to the sastras and accepted codes of behaviour, the husband could not sell or dispose of the wife’s jewellery or stridhanam, in practice this is found to be violated so often, without any condemnation or other proscriptive pressures from society or family, so that there is a disjunction between the ethical and juridical notion of women’s property rights, and the practical observance of the same rights [Ram 1992: 194-195]. Visvanathan [1989: 1341,1342] also finds that dowry now cannot really be regarded as prestation, because the woman has no control over her wealth, and that while there is often suppressed violence, women generally accept their subjugation.

In coastal Andhra Pradesh, the dowry or katnam is regarded as the bride’s property, and even when it is a part of the family land, women identify it as their own land. In practice, this is often merged with the property of the husband, and it forms a part of the separate estate of the couple. The perception is of the family as a unit. Upadhyay thus concludes that the woman does inherit a part of the family property on her marriage, though it is given as a part of the dowry [Upadhyay 1990: 40-42].

The nattukottai chettiars give both dowry and stridhanam to their daughters when they get married. While the dowry is given to the bridegroom’s family, the stridhanam is distinctly maintained as the property of the woman [Nishimura 1994: 248,250; 1998: 202-207]. The amounts of dowry have, however, increased to such an extent, that chettiar women from the lower income groups find that it is impossible to pay this [Ibid: 138-139].

There is also a popular perception that escalating dowries put immense pressures on the families of girls, and in many cases the parents sacrifice their own security in old age in order to have an advantageous marriage for their daughters. In spite of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, in many families, it is felt that the dowry constitutes the share of the woman in the family property. In fact, women themselves give legitimacy to dowry by accepting this as their share of their patrimony [Chowdhry 1997:302-304].11 But the point at issue is whether this really does constitute a fair share of the woman in the family property?

Even if it is a fair share, Chowdhry points out, the property that a rural woman gets as dowry does not generate income in the same way that land does [Ibid : 302]. Both Epstein [1973: 197] and Visvanathan [1989: 1341] observe that women get more than their share of the property when dowries have to be paid. Epstein even remarks that many peasant families become indebted in order to raise the money for a dowry. Carol Upadhyay (1990: 39 (Table 1)) on the other hand, finds that the total value of dowries (that is, for all daughters) given in coastal Andhra Pradesh amounts to 25 to 39 per cent of the value of the family property. Only in one case does the total dowry, given for two daughters, amount to 50 per cent, while the other half was the share of the only son. It is clear that more exhaustive studies need to be undertaken to verify this issue empirically. It must also be noted that almost all these case studies on dowry are now more than a decade old. What changes might have taken place in the nineties in all sections of society need to be researched anew.

What are the factors which lie behind this universal shift to a dowry system? Epstein attributes this to four variables – increased wealth of the Mandya peasants, the fact that women withdraw from field work as the family becomes richer, a small but growing number of educated boys among peasant families who feel justified in demanding dowry and the fact that brahmins practise a dowry system, which encourages other castes to imitate them [Epstein 1973: 199].

Indira Rajaraman [1983: 275-276] had suggested that the fact that communities which had customarily given a bride price were shifting to dowry was more easily explained in the organised sector, since access to employment in this sector through acquiring skills was primarily restricted to males. Marriages to such men were highly desirable since they had more assured and higher earning opportunities. But in the unorganised sector, this transition was more difficult to explain. She argued that two conditions needed to be satisfied: (i) the domestic contribution of the woman through child-rearing and housework must be valued at less than the cost of maintaining her; and, (ii) female contribution to household income falls below a threshold value which does not cover this difference. Female incomes were declining because of a fall in female labour force participation, and so a compensatory payment of dowry was being given. This ‘economic’ interpretation provoked a lengthy debate and much criticism that Rajaraman had completely overlooked the social and cultural factors which influence the practice of dowry as well the complex social perceptions on the relationship between female employment and status.12

More recently, Rao used an ‘implicit market model’ to explain the reasons behind the increase in real dowry payments in south Asia in the past four decades. Based on data collected from six villages in three semi-arid districts, Rao concluded that “a ‘marriage squeeze’ caused by population growth, resulting in larger younger cohorts and hence a surplus of women in the marriage market has played an important role in the rise in dowries” [Rao 1993: 666-667].

The total inadequacy of this kind of a mechanistic model to explain the complex social phenomenon of dowry is very evident. Even at an economic level, the model of a marriage market is not valid since the main characteristics of market behaviour are absent. To begin with, no buyer leaves the market however high the price (i e, dowry). Secondly, there is no homogeneity in the market, and dowries (or the price of a bridegroom) vary greatly across different social and economic groups for men with similar qualifications.

If we reassess Rajaraman’s hypothesis in the light of the more extensive empirical studies of the last decade, one does see that in all communities, dowry, and the quantum of dowry, are directly related to higher educational qualifications and, implicitly, better employment prospects of men. While this partially supports Rajaraman’s contention, it certainly does not explain the dowry phenomenon in a satisfactory way. For instance, it cannot explain why even in urban middle classes, dowry was paid for well-educated, employed girls (who obviously would be contributing substantially to household income). Randeria and Visaria point out that “employment of women per se is unlikely to lead to any improvement in their status in the absence of control over their own earnings, as well as lack of authority in decision-making within the family. ... The process of socialisation and the internalisation of norms which view women as dependent, begins very early and is all-pervasive” [Randeria and Visaria 1984: 652].

Abdul Aziz has argued that dowry was being paid because an unmarried daughter was a social liability to her family, and the social attitudes imposed a discount on the bride, while putting a premium on the bridegroom [Aziz 1983: 604]. Extending this last observation, I would suggest that the present phenomenon of dowry would fit in very well with Amartya Sen’s directional responses of perceived interest and perceived contribution. The perceived interest for a woman (and her family) suggests that any marriage at any cost is better than no marriage; and, whatever may be the educational level or earning capabilities of a woman, it is still less than the value of being married. Conversely, the perceived contribution response consistently overstates the value of a man’s earning capabilities and his contribution to the marriage.

In the final analysis, it is a sad reflection of our times that women’s status in south India in some ways has actually regressed in the past one thousand years. For a society which proudly claims to be marching towards socio-economic development and modernity, the value of women in the family and in broader social perception has been steadily eroded as stridhanam has degenerated into dowry.


[I am grateful to my senior colleagues C H Hanumantha Rao, N Krishnaji and P Venkatramaiah for their suggestions and comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]

 1 Corroborating the relevance of the analysis of Sen and Papanek, an empirical study of property rights in north India notes that the woman is “ideologically and culturally socialised to accept her exclusion from matters related to property. What emerges from this study is that the woman’s best chance of survival rests on her accepting these cultural and societal bonds rather than in breaking them” [Chowdhry 1997: 291].

 2 It is interesting to note here that many inscriptions from medieval Tamil Nadu specifically state that a gift was pritidana or pritidatta – especially when the recipient of the gift was a concubine or a mistress without the status of a wife, so that her absolute right to the property was expressly clarified.

 3 In fact, social historians argue that it was because of this latter that sati was so commonly practised in Bengal as the most definitive way of disinheriting the widow.

 4 There are many such inscriptions which refer to women’s stridhanam land.

 5 In fact, to this day, in Tamil Nadu, even when urban property has to be sold, if the owner is a woman, a release has to be signed by all her female heirs.

 6 In my inquiries during my fieldwork, though not as extensive, I was informed that this was often merged in the capital of the husband’s family and ploughed into the business. My respondent replied, in answer to my question, “What is my property and what is the family’s is certainly not possible for me to say, nor do I even consciously think in those terms” [Mukund 1992: WS-6].

 7 Shobhita Jain [1995:15] points out that in north India also married women continue to receive gifts from their own families both ‘officially’ – that is, openly, on prescribed occasions, and ‘secretly’ from their mothers. The impression, however, remains of a greater degree of alienation of women from their natal homes in north India.

 8 Looking at the same facts – that chettiar women, though they engage in various economic activities, do not control their stridhanam, nor do they have any share in the property of the husband’s joint family, I have concluded that the property rights (and implicitly, status) of these women is very weak [Mukund 1992: WS6]. This is an instructive example of how subjective perceptions vary on what constitutes status.

 9 Bradford [1985: 269-270] argues that the use of the word dowry to indicate varadakshina or groom price/fee is semantically wrong. While accepting this point, the term dowry is used in its commonly understood meaning, for the sake of convenience.

10 But now, among the Tamil brahmins also, the custom of giving a woman stridhanam seems to have gradually disappeared, while this has been replaced by dowry [Personal observation].

11 This issue was debated at length by Madhu Kishwar, C S Lakshmi and Rajni Palriwala in Economic and Political Weekly, 1989, vol xxiv, no 4, 11, 17 and 49.

12 See Economic and Political Weekly, 1983, vol xviii, nos 8, 15, 23, 36-37, 45-46 and 1984, vol xix, no 15.


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