So has young Nisha Sharma of Noida sparked off a new anti-dowry movement? One would like to think that this could happen. After all the anti-dowry campaign of the late 1970s was triggered off by one women, Satyarani Chaddha, who decided to raise the banner against the custom when her own daughter was tortured and killed for not bringing a sufficient dowry. So an individual's actions can still have far-reaching repercussions. Any of us who thinks it is not worth doing something we believe in because we feel we are alone, should remember Nisha and Satyarani and many others like them.
Nisha has been widely feted and felicitated. Her courage has to acknowledged. But the media spotlight on an individual, or several Nisha-like individuals, should not mask some of the harder questions that need to be asked. In Nisha's case, two issues stand out. One, parental support when she decided that the cash demand was too much. Two, that until that line had been crossed both she and her parents went along with unreasonable demands and even deception in terms of the groom's qualifications.
It is this latter issue that one must look at more closely. For what are "reasonable" demands? Why should there be any at all? Why "demands"? Can any of them be really "reasonable"? In which other culture are girls expected to carry to their marital home all the equipment for a house washing machine, fridge, TV, furniture, cupboards, soft furnishings as well as a car or scooter apart from loads of jewellery and clothes? In some customs, the bride is expected to carry with her not just her wedding trousseau but an odd number of saris, 21 or 31 or 41 complete with separate blouses and petticoats and sometimes even matching chappals! How can even this be considered "reasonable"?
The only reason it is accepted is because of the belief that in her marital home, the girl should not be a "burden" on the husband's family. How on earth did such a concept come to be accepted? A "burden"? A woman who comes in virtually like an additional domestic help in the house, who is expected to serve not just the man she marries but his entire household of parents and any siblings? Why should she be expected to "pay" for this apparent privilege, and that too in advance? There is something very sick, and very wrong, in this mentality. And that is what we must question.
I am not sure that in the midst of the celebrations and the media hype, these questions are being tackled. And if we don't come to grips with this central issue, the Nishas will be forgotten just as Satyarani's campaign was relegated to the history books. And dowry will continue in the present or other forms.
The other puzzle that the Nisha case has not solved is that of whether it is only education that makes a difference. In her case, she is a software student. Her education has clearly given her some sense of self-worth so that she knew when to yell "Stop". But since then, the media has highlighted several other cases of women who were not so qualified. Yet, they too took a stand when parents were prepared to back them. On the other hand, surveys have revealed that even in Kerala, where women are educated and qualified and hold jobs, dowry demands continue to be made and to be met.
Nisha probably represents the glimmer of a trend that has already begun. Others have done it more quietly, perhaps. But the dramatic nature of Nisha's refusal to give in will give others, who are thinking of this, some courage.
Yet, a girl's ability to say "no" in our culture depends a great deal on the support she gets from her family. Parents have to decide that they will not marry their daughters if a dowry is demanded, directly or indirectly. If there is even a hint of this at any stage, they should have the courage to call off the arrangement. Unless enough parents do this, a change will not take place. Of course, we can hope for a day when boys grow up believing that it is a privilege if they get a bride and they should not ask her to pay for marriage. But such a day is some way off given the son-preference that continues to dominate our culture.
Also, despite growing literacy amongst women, the man's will about whether a woman will "work" outside the house or not after marriage continues to be the deciding factor. Even without surveys to confirm this, the tendency to ask girls with jobs and careers to set these aside for the sake of marriage to "a suitable boy" continues to prevail. One comes across apparently "modern", educated young men who will tell you that their future brides are professionals with jobs, "but she will not work after marriage". Why? Obviously, because even though being "modern" should mean having a mindset that recognises the needs and rights of women, once she enters your home as a bride, these rights are subsumed under the ostensibly superior needs of the husband and his family. So women can "work" outside the house, if the husband needs the income, but otherwise they must be content to work inside the home for that is considered their true role and destiny.
But to beat men at this dowry game, girls in India should remember that they have numbers on their side. There are more boys in this country than girls. So it is boys who should be running after girls if they want to get married, it is they who should in fact pay a price. Girls should have the confidence to play hard to get, to wait until they find a mate who matches their demands rather than giving in so easily. It is a combination of the determination of girls, supportive parents and a change in our perverted culture that will end this "evil", which is what it is. A law can only help to some extent. It cannot change mindsets as has already been demonstrated.
So if girls can "Bend it like Beckham", why can they not hit dowry for a six?