soas official weblogo


                                       Incap Lecture on Dowry

Guest lecture by Isabelle De Somviele, Steven Marchand & Jagbir Jhutti

Organised by Professor Werner Menski.

 The Dowry Marriage System & Dowry Related Violence in contemporary India & UK

12-1 at SOAS, Room 116 ( main building )

25 November 1999

The Dowry Marriage System & Dowry Related Violence from an Anthropological point of view.-- Analyses of a Hindu Complexity –


1. The hazardous quest for a Dowry-free India.

Dowry related violence is not the most popular, famous, nor best documented topic in social sciences. The attention the dowry marriage system has drawn in the past can not stand comparison with the international hype aroused by 'comparable' social problems, like child labour for instance. However the Dowry system and related abuse meanwhile have been subjected to thorough investigation from different academic angles.

Analyses of the transactions within the Dowry system as presented by Bisakha Sen can give a better insight in the economic aspects of the matter. Legal action to defend victims, as well as falsely accused, of dowry related violence, and the quest for a more solid legal basis to sanction, and moreover to prevent these kinds of social injustice, is not only a noble cause, but also an absolute necessity.

Other people hope the internet and other communication technologies will eradicate this social evil, when international awareness grows among the 'Homo Digitalus' as suggested by Anuppa Caleekal .

International as well as grass roots social activism against any kind of crime, abuse or injustice deserves unconditional support.

Among the few things that have become obvious in the discourse on dowry related violence throughout the last decennia, is that unilateral efforts, yet in itself useful and positive contributions, don't ever seem to reach their goals. Despite the efforts, Dowry abuse has not been eradicated, on the contrary it is steadily on the increase, and spreading geographically.

It is by no means our intention to criticise the approaches mentioned above. What we, among others, are convinced of is that a problem of such complexity can only be tackled in a successful and correct way from a multidisciplinary approach. An approach in which the term 'multidisciplinary' stands for 'interchange' rather than 'static contribution'. Mr. Thakur of the International Society Against Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, also proclaimed his concern over the neglect for others' peoples work…


What we want to present to you, is our view on how the Anthropologist methodology can help to create a broad cultural insight, awareness, a basis for field research etc, and how you can use it.

Considering the limited timeframe we will do our best to be brief, and spare a lot of time to discuss your views on the matter.

Our lecture is based mostly on our 1999 research paper "The Accidents of Womanhood" – Myths, legends and realities about the Dowry Marriage System and the Suttee ritual in contemporary India. You can request a full version of this text from our web site at


2. The role of Anthropology in a multidisciplinary attack against Dowry abuse.

The basis of any anthropological analysis is the notion of culture. And although we do not seek to teach general anthropology in this lecture, we need to elaborate just a little, in order to start off from a common basis.

For culture is easily used in many different contexts, everybody has its own understanding of it.

Moreover, in the debate concerning Dowry and Dowry related violence it often becomes a rather tense concept, itself subject of many discussions.

The core of the anthropological concept consists of the systematic or strategic logic's of a (ethnic) group. A source of identity. The system of symbols that gives one an orientation towards himself, the others, the world..

In this understanding culture is not to be narrowed down to its sources, i.e. scriptures, monuments,… It is not so much what is written down that forms the object of culture, but the 'mindset' or what people believe it is.

Thus for the anthropological perspective it is not a priority to have extensive discussions whether or not the Dowry-system can be traced back to Hindu scriptures. Today's reality seems to be that for a substantial group of Hindu's the Dowry-system is a habitus.

Putting forward the concept of a 'mindset', rather than a tradition based on true or false interpretation of religious scriptures, brings us to the methodology of researching from within. For we are convinced that a true or effective solution for DRV has to be (at least partly) generated from the culture itself.

It is our belief that the merit of this anthropological approach, before all consists of mapping the factors involved.

DRV is not a simple, nor straightforward problem, easy to be tackled. A number of aspects all part of one complex socio-cultural system, built up to a complexity often hardly accessible.    

This perspective aims to give an insight, or at least an outline of this 'big picture'. The rudiment of this 'big picture' being thus an analysis of the culture in which this violence (can) occur(s). Puzzling together those components in past and present, and their interlinking and interaction, which create the conditions for the Dowry-system to generate a form of systematic violence.

Applying an anthropological methodology should shed some light on a broad way of looking towards this problem, and might lead towards a new line of thinking in the search for eradication.


3. Unravelling the complex habitus of the Dowry.

As mentioned before the tacit problem of Dowry related violence shows firm resistance against any kind of reformation or repression. It must be obvious by now that any proposed solution that is intended to be superimposed is doomed to fail. The question remains on how a solution can be generated from within.

A first step in that direction is the unravelling of the complex cultural habitus that somehow generates and 'carries' this specific kind of violence. As pointed out before ( point  2 ) anthropologist methodology is highly appropriate to help mapping all the different factors that are somehow relevant in the broader context of the Dowry system, and moreover show how these factors are interconnected. To prevent us from chasing smoke, we should try to understand how these factors generate abuse in certain combinations in a systematic way.

Along with this approach we should then at all times be attentive for possible links to overcome the problem, and ways as for how to remove obstacles for solutions.

The understanding and insights generated can not only lead way for future efforts trying to break this spiral of violence, it can also help to explain why certain earlier efforts were not that successful.

Next, we would like to look at a number of "real live" situations in which Dowry is involved. Before we proceed to that, we would like to recapitulate some of the main views that we wanted to represent today.


4. Closing remarks.

Recapitulation of main views

We want to thank SOAS students for the large turnout and their positive attitude towards this issue, and of course Prof. Menski and the GEMS group for making this seminar possible in the first place !


Download overhead projection slides (Power Point format)

Trouble dowloading ? Contact Webmaster

Next Seminar at SOAS

[INCAP Home Page] [About Us] [University of Leuven] [Womenstudies] [Dowry Page]