The latest episode of Tamil talk show Neeya Naana which was aired on Vijay TV on Sunday has created quite a bit of discussion on social media.
The subject of the show was how young women demand dowry from their parents at the time of marriage.
Yes, you read that right – not families of the groom, but the bride asking for dowry herself. On the other side of the debate were their mothers, listening to their tall dreams and telling them that no, it isn’t possible for us to hire a helicopter for your wedding (not kidding – this is actually from the show).
At first glance, the young women appear to be nothing more than selfish, entitled brats. Most of them want a centrally located house, a vehicle, household appliances, and at least 50 sovereigns of gold as dowry. Not to mention a grand wedding. But as the show progressed, it became apparent that it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
And sadly, though both parties were on seemingly opposite sides of the debate, they were speaking the same language – that of patriarchy.
To begin with, nobody – neither the young women nor their mothers – questioned the fundamental assumption that marriage was inevitable and that it would be the biggest event in the young women’s lives.
You could see it in the way the young women narrated their childhood dreams – one wanting a lehenga worn by a film star for her wedding reception when she was only in Class 10, another declaring confidently, “I was born for my husband!”
You could see it in the clear son preference among the mothers – why would we give you, the daughter, the house when you will anyway get married and leave?
Neither party disagreed that a woman’s worth in her marital home was measured by how much dowry the bride brought.
“Only if you give me double that of what the groom’s family demands, will they treat me with respect,” reasoned one young woman.
On the other side, a mother flatly refused to give her daughter fixed deposits because that would be an invisible gift which would do nothing to elevate their status in society. Silver vessels and other items were preferable.
When one mother said she will give some gold to the daughter-in-law who comes into the house, her visibly hurt daughter flared up and asked, “I was born in your womb. When she comes, she will get her gold and come. Why do you have to give her anything?”
In between the arguments, anchor Gobinath injected his thoughts once in a while – when a young woman protested the fact that she’d been forced to hand over her entire salary to her family all these years and that she was only asking for the money back through dowry, Gobinath said that if she’d been a son, she’d have done this without expecting anything in return. He added that her job in an IT company was the “dowry” her parents had given her.
This, after at least two women on the show spoke about having to do a less expensive course because their parents were only willing to cough up that much money for the boys in the family.
As one of the women put it, “Whenever we (girls) asked for something as children, it was denied to us and we were told the money was being saved for our wedding. Now when we ask for things at the time of marriage, they say they can’t give. How is this fair?”
Why would the sons want anything “in return” when their gender privilege ensures that everything is handed over to them on a platter? Although Gobinath did make a point about girls being unwanted in their homes later in the show, the tone of the narrative was largely an indictment of their “greed”, rather than analysing how tilted the equation is.
Also worrisome was how the young women’s wishes to stay independent of their in-laws was viewed. Known as “thani kuduthanam”, the desire to move away from the husband’s parents has been the hallmark of a “villi” in Tamil society as well as popular culture.
When one of the young women said that she’d like her parents to buy household appliances for her new home, Gobinath asked her why she’d need all that since her husband’s home was likely to have them already. The young woman’s response – that perhaps she’d live with her husband separately – drew mocking laughter from the anchor and the mothers.
Why is this a funny or unreasonable choice? One of the prime reasons why female foeticide and infanticide are rampant is the belief that while a daughter would marry and leave her home, the son would live with his parents forever.
Why is it alright for a daughter to leave her parental home but never a son? Unless we question these ideas, how will we ever turn things around?
This is not to say that a son or a daughter should stop caring for their parents, but is it necessary for a bride to live with her husband’s family, subjecting herself to their often oppressive diktats, for this to happen? What’s so wrong about a couple wanting to live in their own space?
The hoary tradition of the joint family is built upon the oppression of women and individual choices and there’s nothing funny about it. The young women’s thoughts – although foolish and immature – are a clear reflection of what they’ve seen when growing up:
“If the house is in my name, they (the husband’s family) can’t throw me out, can they?”
“If I bring a TV to the house, nobody can stop me from watching it. Or even breaking it if I’m angry!”
These views express the understanding they have of what a marriage entails – the bride will be treated badly and unless she has enough wealth, she cannot stay afloat.
Though Gobinath waxed eloquent about the poor Annan (elder brother) of the family who keeps giving and giving to his ungrateful sisters, he did not ask any of the women why they thought they might be thrown out of their husband’s homes. Or why if the women assembled there had such a poor view of the institution of marriage, they were willing to spend lakhs getting into it.
Though there were a few comments about patriarchy from a lawyer and entrepreneur he’d invited as guests to the show, the narrative was overwhelmingly about the “arrogant” and “selfish” young women who did not stand up against dowry but were instead encouraging it.
How will they when you want them to be subservient to patriarchy in every other way? When you want them to be “good girls” who take the backseat right from childhood? When you want them to be “good girls” who marry the boy their family picks? When you want them to hand over their entire salary to their parents without keeping their own savings and securing financial independence? When you want them to “adjust” with in-laws and forget about individual choices?
Yes, these young women are alarmingly silly. But we have no right to judge them. They’re simply voicing out what we all believe as a society – however educated or urbane. We put them there and let’s not forget that.