by Rita Banerji
I am on a Google alert for “dowry,” a practice that is recognized as one of the underlying causes of India’s female genocide/gendercide. Recently there was an avalanche of ‘dowry’ alerts as Indian and foreign media eagerly reported on the new Facebook game, “Angry Brides,” launched by the private Indian marriage bureau Shaadi.com. Players are invited to throw things like virtual shoes and tomatoes at grooms demanding dowry. Every time a dowry-demanding groom is hit, the dowry amount is lowered.
What I find appalling is how media reports depict “Angry Brides” as a commendable way to raise “social awareness.” The Vice President of Shaadi.com is quoted as calling “Angry Brides” an “innovative” plan to get more customers and engage with them about “the nuisance of dowry.” While the corporate giant Shaadi.com, with its base of 20 million customers, is recognized among the world’s top 50 most innovative companies, the term “nuisance” grossly understates the actual impact of the practice of dowry.
As illogical as it is for the brides’ families to comply, they do so because the fear of social stigma from a broken-off engagement or divorce is so deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Even education and wealth do not seem to dispel the fear.
The inhuman and systematic violence on women is ultimately the most grisly impact of the custom of dowry. Every year, thousands of young married women are subject to all forms of abuse and violence by their husbands and in-laws in their attempts to extract more wealth from the women and their families. Dowry among the wealthier in India includes demands for luxury cars, houses and expensive real estate, and high-end job placements. Thousands of women ultimately end up murdered when the money stops or is not enough.
Thirty-one-year-old Komal Cheda was one of the thousands of Indian women who were victims of dowry extortion and violence last year. She was a manager at the HDFC bank, India’s second largest private sector bank, and a well-educated, sophisticated, urban woman, earning in India’s top 10 percentile. It was not enough to pay off her father-in-law’s loans and pay for her husband’s brother’s higher studies in the United States. When the demands for more and the abuse and violence from her husband and in-laws would not cease, Komal committed suicide to make it stop.
A study published in The Lancet last year reported that about 136,000 women are burnt to death in India every year, about one woman every five minutes. In a television discussion titled “Burning Women,” renowned Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaisingh points out how The Lancet report is not even close to the real numbers, given the numerous other ways – such as hanging, poisoning, and drowning – women are murdered for dowry in India.
Dowry-driven female gendercide gives rise to practices like female feticide and infanticide. Men and their families who extort dowry from women do not want daughters for whom they will have to pay dowry later. Daughters are eliminated en masse before they become women. Every year, scores of expectant mothers have repeated forced abortions, thus ridding India of millions of female fetuses. In villages of India, thousands of newborn girls are murdered, and female toddlers are starved or battered to death. The rate of mortality for girls under six years is 75 percent higher than for boys the same age.
It is very distressing that the media reports that laud “Angry Brides” do not think about the appropriateness of making a game out of one of the gravest human rights violations of this century, or the misogynistic implications of how the ‘game’ is set up. What if we were trivializing the marginalization and killing of a group because of race, religion, or ethnicity? There is an underlying misogyny in India that needs to be acknowledged, just like we acknowledge the racism in race-based hate crimes, the killing of Tutsis in Rwanda, or the holocaust in Europe.
Newspaper articles make light of the underlying issues of violence and abuse in dowry cases with statements like, "With weapons like tomatoes, brooms, and heels, the men definitely need to look out." In fact, the picture of the ‘angry woman’ in the Facebook game is modeled after the Hindu Goddess, Durga, who is known to have defeated and slain the men (who are often characterized as 'demons') who attempted to molest and subjugate her. The question that should be asked is, if the idea is to invoke the power and strength of Durga, then why has she been armed with such ridiculous substitute 'weapons' like tomatoes and brooms instead of her original sword, trident and thunderbolt? Or better yet, why not arm the "Angry Bride" with the laws and the Constitution of India, the modern weapons of safety and protection that Indian women are struggling to use, even in the face of immense apathy from the police and judiciary?
It seems that Shaadi.com has a good reason to refer to the issue of dowry as a mere “nuisance,” and to set up their game not as an outright denunciation of dowry but more a negotiation of it. Perhaps it is because half their customers have daughters who could be potential victims of dowry, while the other half has sons and are the dowry demanders. A good business knows how to keep all its customers happy.
About the author:
Rita Banerji is a writer, photographer, and gender activist. She is the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global campaign that is fighting the ongoing female genocide in India. Her book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies came out in 2009. It was long-listed for the Vodaphone-Crossword Non- Fiction Book Award (India). The same year she also received The Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (U.S.A.). Rita's vision for the future she thinks is somewhere in Beethoven’s 9th symphony! Visit her website www.ritabanerji.com.