Vismaya V. Nair, an Ayurveda student from Kollam in Kerala, reportedly committed suicide at her husband's residence. Vismaya's family alleges that the torture at the hands of her husband, who demanded more dowry, drove the 24-year-old to death. Image Credit: Twitter

Every time I read of dowry death in Kerala, I cringe. It can’t be true, I tell myself. But it’s a reality, even though it’s inconsistent with the character of the south Indian state, which I call home.

The people are highly educated and generally hold liberal views. The women folk are talented, literate and intelligent. So how can dowry deaths occur with such sickening regularity in my state? It’s beyond belief, and I can only hang my head in shame.

Dowry is the money or property given by a bride’s family to the bridegroom. And it’s illegal in India. Yet, in Kerala and much of India, parents circumvent the law by calling it a gift. They have no qualms in seeking or giving gold jewellery, large amounts of cash, property and luxury cars.

Why does it happen? The bride’s parents ostensibly want to secure the future of their daughter. But demands from the groom’s relatives reflect nothing but pure greed. It merely means that they are more interested in the fortune than the bride.

Dowries are a windfall

Why would a young man accept dowry? Greed, again, is the answer. He sees marriage as an opportunity to usurp a large amount of money he couldn’t possibly earn or save. To me, it’s a poor reflection on the man and his character.

For he sees the dowry as a passport to riches. The wife is not a life partner for him but a vehicle that would bring immense wealth — a windfall. For him, marriage is not a union of minds but a business deal. So he doesn’t care if the scramble for dowry demeans the union and casts a shadow on what’s essentially the best phase in the life of the newlyweds.

Even after they receive dowries, some men and their families (mothers-in-law included) are dissatisfied. They pester the bride to fetch more money from her family; taunts, abuse, and physical harm follow.

These young women sometimes don’t get support from their families, who say a wife’s place is in her husband’s house. The abused woman’s father and mother might even dismiss the ill-treatment as minor irritations that have to be ignored or endured. Finally, the suffering wife sees no other recourse and takes her life. This is the anatomy of dowry death.

Abhorrent practice in a progressive state

Dowry deaths are a stain on Kerala’s reputation as a progressive state. A 100 per cent literacy and social awakening count for nothing if the customs and traditions of the state can’t protect its daughters.

International Monetary Fund’s chief economist Gita Gopinath calls Kerala the best place in the world for a girl child. She considers herself lucky to be born in the state that calls itself “God’s own country”. But, maybe, the spate of dowry deaths will force Gopinath to change her opinion.

Dowry death is a crime that must be eradicated since the state and its people are held out as an example for the rest of India. Kerala is a state that has more women than men. A state that has stamped out female infanticide. A state that has a women workforce that would be the envy of others.

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Kerala may have advanced in most spheres of life, but its male minds are stuck in a time warp. They remain yoked to the unsavoury traditions of the past. Traditions that dictate wives have to be subservient to husbands. Traditions that never gave women a voice in family matters. Traditions that tethered women to the confines of the kitchen, a fact that’s brilliantly portrayed in the Malayalam movie, The Great Indian Kitchen.

These traditions should have been cast aside when women stepped up to play roles that fulfilled their true potential. Roles that enabled them to be equal to men. Instead, the gender stereotypes were perpetuated by insecure men and willing women over several generations. And sadly, it continues to this day.

In every family, children learn from their parents. So when sons see their fathers mistreat mothers, and they subconsciously carry these actions into their families. Daughters too watch their meek mothers surrender their freedom and dignity to domineering fathers and play the submissive role in their marriages. And patriarchy wins.

How to prevent dowry deaths

Patriarchy is at the heart of the abhorrent practice of dowry that leads to the deaths of young women. How can we prevent dowry deaths? Stub out the practice of dowry, and it will go a long way in preventing suicides of new brides. In a literate state like Kerala, people know that giving and accepting dowry is illegal. Yet, they have no respect for the law. Here’s where police and courts come in. Cases have to be registered against the violators, and severe punishments should be meted out.

It can be a deterrent, but will it prevent the practice? Not necessarily. Education has to start at every home. Sons have to be taught that sisters are their equal. That they have equal rights. That their rights cannot be trampled. And daughters must be taught to stand up for their rights. If that happens, sons will cease to accept dowries and daughters would refused to be sold in the name of marriage.

Not just that. There has to be a sea change in the dynamics at home. Every son learns from his father, and the stereotype of a domineering husband has been passed down through generations. That’s the root cause of physical abuse that destroys families. It has to change.

For that, fathers should set an example by treating wives as equal partners. Mothers should refuse to be wallflowers and demand their rights. Only then will their sons and daughters carry those lessons into their lives.

When that happens, young men will stop ill-treating their wives. And young women will refuse to be cowed by the antics and assaults of men and their families. Then every woman will have the courage to walk away when a relationship sours. She will have the strength to stand on her feet and live life on her terms. Empowering women will go a long way in preventing dowry deaths. It will save lives.

So, if you love your daughter, treat your wife as your equal.