Dowry in Kerala: ‘Congratulations on the Wedding! Which Car Are You Getting?’

Outside the homes of a small cluster of relatives who live a very modest life devoid of most luxuries sits a damn good car.

These cars do not match their general quality of life.

Something doesn’t add up.

Till it finally does.

These cars were “gifts” from the girls the sons in these families married.

In the Kerala Muslim community, to which I belong, cars and weddings go hand in hand. More often than not, men arrive for their weddings in one car and leave in another.

Cars have become a matter of pride and a status symbol in this day and age. It is the first barometer to weigh whether a family is financially ‘worthy enough’ to be maritally associated with. In recent years, not a single wedding video is made without excessive shots of the bride and groom’s ride – so much so that people have started renting luxury cars.

This act of receiving dowry cars has become a matter of prestige. The higher the groom’s financial and social standing, the better the car he is expected to receive.

When one of my classmate’s marriage got arranged, the demand for a Mercedes was made by her doctor fiancé’s family. The parents of the boy argued that they had spent a lot of money on his education and that it was fair since they were getting a doctor as a son-in-law. When the girl’s folks refused, the boy’s family threatened to break off the engagement. After a lot of ugly negotiations, they settled for a Toyota Fortuner.

Now, while the newlyweds drive around their hometown in their sparkling new car, her brother, who got married a few months later, drives around in a BMW he got as his dowry.

This vicious and ironic cycle of giving dowry with one hand and taking dowry with another can be seen in
many families across all classes.

In the weeks before our wedding, my husband was hounded by the question of “what car are you getting?” by young and old people alike.

Changing past generations is difficult. They are victims of years of societal conditioning and internalised patriarchy. However, it is shocking and heartbreaking to see how young children are being conditioned into believing that getting married entails getting a new car.

In pockets of families where taking and giving these expensive gifts has been completely normalised, it is apparent that young boys grow up expecting to receive dowry. This sets a dangerous and regressive precedent for the generations to come.

One of the arguments often heard when parents give dowry cars is that they “only want to ensure their daughter’s comfort”. However, these same parents do not feel obligated to ensure the same comfort when their sons get married but rather push that responsibility onto the bride’s parents.

Recently, when someone I know of got hitched, her parents gifted the groom a reasonably expensive car. The parents have never owned a car in their lives and have always relied on public transport. What is even more questionable about this gift is that the groom is settled outside the country. In cases such as these, it is not the daughter’s comfort that parents are tending to, but rather that of her in-laws.

Another popular argument I’ve heard is “what if the proposal is so good that parents have no choice but to give them the dowry they ask”. This problematic line of thought in itself is rooted in misogyny and arises from the belief that women hold so little value on their own that the only way they can be deemed worthy is by attaching monetary benefits to them. And since when did extortion and blackmail in the name of marriage become desirable features in potential partners and their families?

While some may think that these asks end with the wedding, acquiescing to these initial demands often sets a bad precedence and gives room for further abuse, harassment and coercion even after the wedding. This is something we have seen in the slew of recent dowry-related murders that made
headlines, such as the Vismaya case in Kerala.

When one family weds their daughter with dowry, the others in the vicinity feel the pressure to do the same. Those who can’t afford to are forced to take out loans to cover the expenses. Additionally, in most weddings, expenses are exclusively borne by the girl’s family. This unfair system of making only one party bear wedding expenses is in itself a form of dowry.

While some men explicitly demand dowry, there are others who silently watch while their parents run the negotiations. My friend once asked her fiancé why he did not stop his parents from harassing her family for dowry. He said that he was helpless and that one can’t expect to change their parents.

A lot of our problems would get resolved if such “helpless men” stopped putting themselves in the marriage market.

History has always associated the phrase “gold-digger” with women. Yet it is always men and their families demanding literal gold in order to marry.

In the couple of years that my family spent foraging the depths of matrimonies, what I understood is that opportunistic parents will milk as much as possible from their son’s weddings. These parents will raise some extremely mediocre men and start believing that this gives them the right to harass others for financial benefits.

If legally prohibiting dowry for more than 60 years has taught us anything, it is that making something illegal is not going to deter people from doing it. Especially when the systems to enforce the anti-dowry laws are so skewed.

Change needs to come from a sociological standpoint wherein the way in which dowry is perceived needs to be challenged. There needs to be vehement sense of shame and disgust attached to the very act of giving and taking dowry to move people into thinking twice before indulging in this regressive and distasteful practice.

Reniya Naji is a software engineer who aspires to pursue her creative interests through writing.

Featured image: Prajwal Das / Unsplash