Mockery might correct some social ills in India

Satire is probably the best way to fight the practice of dowry in India, writes Amrit Dhillon

The dowry can bankrupt families, but without it many daughters will remain unmarried. Ajit Solanki / AP Photo
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Since 1961, dowry has been illegal in India. The law has proved useless against the force of a deep-rooted social custom. Aware that the law was ineffective, governments over the decades have launched advertising campaigns to condemn this social evil. The tone has invariably been ponderous – moral exhortations by earnest-looking men and women urging Indians not to give or accept dowry.

None of them worked. Dowry flourishes like a pestilence.

A woman is killed every hour in India over demands for more dowry by her husband and in-laws. Others suffer unimaginable cruelty over dowry demands.

Dowry is the cause of another social evil – female foeticide. Having to give a dowry to daughters is the single most powerful reason that Indian parents prefer boys and abort their female foetuses.

The dowry – cash, fridges, jewellery, TVs, scooters, furniture, sewing machines, cooking utensils – can bankrupt families but without it, many a daughter will never find a husband.

Finally, a group of young filmmakers with Red Carpet Entertainment has decided to dump the sermons and opted for ridicule instead. Two new videos, in 50 delicious seconds, parody the people who accept dowry.

In one video, a young bride is shown about to go for a ride on a scooter with her husband. The woman's father-in-law tells her contemptuously that she had better think again because he needs the scooter to do his chores.

The bride retorts: “I'm the one who paid the quoted price. I gave you the scooter as part of the dowry I bought so I own the scooter and your son. Ask nicely, and I might let you use my things.”

The second video also alters the usual image of a new bride in her in-laws’ home, namely, tense, eager to please, everyone’s doormat. It shows her in the kitchen with her mother-in-law who is goading her into asking her parents for a new fridge.

The bride says her parents only recently gave a sewing machine. “What is this? Do I have to give monthly instalments or what?” asks the young woman. The mother’s reply is why not?

The wife answers: “Well, monthly instalments are only for objects, so if you expect monthly instalments from me, that means your son is an object I can use as I wish.”

In January, the government of Narendra Modi launched a scheme to empower women called Save Your Daughter, Teach Your Daughter.

As part of this campaign, this is the kind of hard-hitting message that the government needs to adopt. Enough of fuddy-duddy sermons intended to edify the public; Indian men think dowry is their birthright and no lecture will persuade them otherwise. But mockery might.

The government invited members of the public to devise their own ways of promoting women’s empowerment.

A private individual, Sunil Alagh, a Mumbai business consultant, decided to finance the making of these two videos as his contribution to women’s rights.

This is not to say that these videos will banish dowry, but surely no one would argue with the fact that mocking and discrediting a social custom is more likely to succeed than moral exhortation. Ridicule is a powerful weapon.

No one likes looking foolish and a man certainly looks like a fool when he trades in his self-respect and dignity for a microwave.

Of course, the videos will only be effective if their message filters down to ordinary Indians (the media has not helped to spread the message, having almost totally ignored the videos).

Ideally, they should lead to situations where, when a man is getting married and his friends hear that he has accepted a dowry from the bride, they poke fun at him and make him look stupid.

Given that all else has failed, satire is probably the best way to go. In the meantime, it makes for delightful viewing.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi