The practice of dowry in India goes back thousands of years. Its original intent,
scholars say, was to protect women, who by bringing property and belongings to the marriage could enjoy some creature comforts and not have to depend entirely on their husbands.
But somewhere along the line, what was supposed to be security for the bride came to be seen as a boon to the groom and his family, a way for them to augment their wealth.
A few years ago, the Times of India listed the expected price tag on grooms from different professions; the more prestigious or lucrative the job, the bigger the dowry a man's family could demand. A businessman with an MBA could fetch 1.5 million rupees (about $37,500 at today's exchange rate), and a member of India's storied civil service could ask for 2 million rupees ($50,000).
And what used to be simple dowries of livestock and everyday household furnishings have given way to packages of cash, jewelry and big-ticket items, often just to help the groom and his relatives keep up with the neighbors. In many cases, the bride is hounded for more well past the wedding day."Whatever the latest consumer goods are in the market is what gets demanded," said Neelu, a women's rights advocate here in Patna, the capital of Bihar state, who goes by only one name.
"Cars, refrigerators -- now there's a demand for computers, too."
This alarming information seems ironic considering India's recent election of its first female president, Prathiba Patil and rising rates of women continuing their education beyond high school and even holding more positions in the workplace. It's possible that just as things are looking up for women in India, their rising status comes as a threat in a rapidly changing society, proving that despite progress, social norms, no matter how archaic, often outweigh reason. Unfortunately, India is not alone. Citizens in countless other countries, including many in the West, frequently make decisions marred by their own inability to see beyond "tradition."