Journal of South Asia Women Studies

Italian Dowry and Indian Dowry Deaths

Editorial Note by Enrica Garzilli

After my graduation in Rome in 1985, I started to work also on the traditional Hindu Law regarding women. When I asked one of my professors to read my first paper on the subject, he suddenly said to me: "Why don't you study the problem of dowry and bride-burning in India? I have heard from some colleagues that in Delhi alone there have been thousand assassinations during the last two or three years".

I sincerely thought that this professor was exaggerating the problem. In fact, in Italy we still had dowry for women, especially in some regions. It was common for parents to give a daughter some property, telling her that was her dowry.

Dowry in Italy was a gift to the bride and it was also considered a sort of guarantee in case of divorce. Just a few months ago a well-educated friend of mine of aristocrat origin legally claimed and obtained from her husband, from whom she wanted to divorce, her dowry, revalued according to an estimate based on over thirty-two years of marriage. The grandmother of this friend was called "The Walking Dowry".

My own grand-mother was known to have a strong personality: the explanation given to me by my relatives was that was also due to the confidence given her by the large dowry she had received when she got married, at the age of fifteen. She was also well known to have paid for part of the family estate - which was also her own estate - with her dowry, which she used to carry in her brassiere, since it was her own inalienable property.

A few years later I worked at Delhi University as a Research Affiliate in Sanskrit, and I also worked together with professors of Hindu Law. One of these was a young attorney who obtained his degree in India and who had won a fellowship to carry on further studies in Italy. I learnt that even though in Italy he had a fiancée, whom I knew, he was already married to an Indian woman, Mohini. I asked our common friends about his strange behavior, and these friends told me that there was a much more distasteful side: he used to beat his young wife. They had tried to dissuade him, and they were told that it was a family business. I asked them the reason for this, and I was told that it was something very serious: his wife had many miscarriages, and moreover her family could not afford the last three installments of the full dowry amount. They were actually worried about MohinŸ and they went to her joint family, trying to settle the matter in an honorable way: they were again kindly told not to interfere in their personal matters.

In the end, we decided to collect money for Mohini whose life, according to my friends, was in real danger.

The incidents of beating due to dowry were not due to the detestable personality of that acquaintance: walking around Delhi University I noticed many advertisements in English and in Hindi advising women to be careful while cooking, since their scarves could easily catch fire by mistake. Of course it was not written whose and what kind of "mistake"! Every day I read in some Indian newspapers about inesplicable incidents of deaths of women near their stoves at home: no relatives, even when present, seemed to have heard or noticed anything. When I asked my supervisor at the university what he had received from his bride as dowry, he answered that when he married, about thirty-five years before, dowry was not necessary in Delhi: he had received from his bride just the symbolic offering of an empty coconut containing some auspicious fruits.

Nowadays dowry is an increasing problem in India, and in several other Hindu communities all over the world. This is why we are publishing this special issue with some of the papers which have been written for the first International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India. It was held at the Harvard Law School on Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 1995 and was organized by Mr. H. Thakur and Prof. M. Witzel (Harvard University, USA).

We will publish four papers: Domestic Violence: A Daily Terror in Most Mauritian Families by Ranjita Bunwaree-Phukan; Dowry, 'Dowry Deaths', and Violence Against Women by Julia Leslie; Hindu Marriage System, Hindu Scriptures and Dowry and Bride-Burning in India by Ram Narayan Tripathi; Little Dowry, No Sati: The Lot of Women in the Vedic Period by Michael E. J. Witzel.

Ms. Bunwaree-Phukan is a senior executive in the State Bank of Mauritius and a well-known social activist; Dr. Leslie is Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London; Mr. Ram N. Tripathi is a writer and a social worker in eastern India, and the organizing president of the International Society Against Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, Calcutta Chapter; Dr. Witzel is Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, USA.

In the next issues we will publish the papers of the second Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India which has been held at Harvard University at the end of November 1996. We will also publish a lecture delivered by Dr. Taslima Nasrin in Cambridge (USA) in April 1996, and my interview to her.

As we announced several times, at the beginning of the new year the collected 1995-1996 JSAWS issues will be printed, bound, and distributed as books.

I want to thank you all for your letters, for submitting papers, for all the info and the news, for the books, for the questions. I thank you all for your trust and I wish you

Happy Holidays!