Levi Strauss in ‘Elementary Forms of Kinship’ emphasized the women as the “ultimate gifts” involved in creating of alliances and networks. According to him, the flow of women is essential to social integration, and groups are held together by giving and receiving daughters, sisters and wives. Many have criticized Levi Strauss for presenting women as objects or reducing them to mere commodities. But this is not to be forgotten that Levi Strauss’s account is based on a huge ethnographic observations, which conclude that women are just exchanged. The “exchange of women”, which he does explain, is considered to be the archetype of marriage, almost in every part of the globe. What varies from culture to culture is the form of marriage payments made at the time of marriages. Dowry and bride price are the most common of all in South Asia. Bride kidnapping is also found in some parts of the world.

Dowry is a much talked about issue when it comes to Indian weddings. Parents spend extravagantly to get their daughters married off to a good husband. They present their daughters decorated like a gift to the groom. With urbanization and modernization, dowry has taken different forms. There are few radical people in India who loathe this institution and think beyond. But the system still has been gripping Indian society. It is hard to say if ever man can win over his avaricious attitude but it seems the institution of dowry will collapse in the near future. In a scenario, where women are turning into scarce objects with males outnumbering females as per the 2011 census, the institution of dowry will soon probably get supplanted by not-so-famous and not-so-ethical institution of bride wealth. This institution specifies that a prospective husband, usually with the help of his relatives, must provide a substantial sum of money or highly valued goods to his future wife’s family before a marriage can be contracted. This institution makes sense on account of the compensation it offers to the girl’s parents, but if we contemplate closely, is this not another kind of prostitution, institutionalized prostitution to be precise?

Recently, in Madhya Pradesh, in India, some cases have been reported in which women were sold to the grooms in return for some cash and cattle. The girls involved were mostly minors in the age group of 14 to 16. Some cases have been reported in states like Punjab and Haryana also. These girls are sold at a meagre amount of thirty to fifty thousand or in return for a buffalo. Well, seriously? They are humans and not objects that have such low prices.

Marriage is a sacrosanct contract in which both the partners have an equal say. With institutions like dowry and bride wealth, the contract loses all it sacredness and reduces itself to a sexual contract based on monetary exchanges. It can be considered to be a sexual contract especially in the cases of bride price because traffickers usually buy brides and sell them in the other states or overseas, after satisfying their own sexual needs. These women belong to the lower classes and their parents have no option but to sell them in return for some money that can sustain their life for a little while. What else can they do when the cost of raising a daughter are rising like anything, when there is a little chance that parents can protect their daughters from the eyes of the man ready to wither her gullible being.

Sadly, the formal institutions and the state have also not been doing much to protect the interests of the women belonging to the weaker and poor sections of the society. In India, episodes of atrocity against tribal and poor women are a routine affair but due to lack of reporting, nothing can be done to do away with the problem. Also when the victims see rapists flouting without impunity, traffickers going unnoticed, there is no incentive for them to report their cases. Feminists’ movements have also failed to subsume the interests of these women in the mainstream agenda. And while the society itself carries on its hypocritical nature of worshipping and exploiting women at the same time, the only question which looms in my mind is- How can we possibly price the priceless? Can we?


Nidhi is a postgraduate in sociology from Delhi School of Economics, India. She is also a freelance writer and a development professional.

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