Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Dr Kate Jehan

Gender, generation and globalisation: the growing hold of dowry culture in South India

Photo of Dr Kate Jehan

The giving and taking of dowry has been at the forefront of concern for feminist organisations and poverty campaigners in India for several decades. In spite of stringent legislation, the practice continues to flourish, in which marriage is contingent on transfers of money, goods or property from the bride's party to the groom's. Activists argue that such practice represents the social and economic dependence of women, increases a vulnerability to gender-based violence and exacerbates poverty. A widespread presence of dowry in a society is considered characteristic of what has been called 'classic patriarchy'.

What happens when a society like this undergoes a period of rapid transition? India formally liberalised its economy in 1991, initiating a broad ranging process of social transformation. What happens to 'classically patriarchal' attitudes against a backdrop of ongoing socio-economic change?

My research looks at attitudes to dowry over three generations in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  In recent decades, South India has seen a significant increase in the quantum of dowries exchanged and an adoption of the practice by more and more communities. The research asks the following key questions: if changes are occurring, why are they occurring? What role does the present socio-economic context play in changes to the dowry system?

Examining Kandiyoti's (1988) assertion that the material bases of patriarchy crumble under the impact of new market forces and the influx of capital to rural areas, my research gauges the impact of globalisation on both rural and urban experiences of dowry.  What impact do globalising / modernising processes have? Are these processes likely to mitigate or exacerbate support for dowry? Do changes in material conditions undermine the normative patriarchal order? By examining the inter-generational picture, my research will establish the extent to which attitudes are derived from contemporary variables, and how they are contextualised amongst shifting concepts of gender, class, caste and religious identity.

My fieldwork suggests that globalisation has transformed, rather than eroded articulations of patriarchy. As envisaged by Kandiyoti (1988), female responses to socio-economic change range from a retreat into conservatism to radical protest. This prompts the questions – why is status so central to Indian identity? And why does marriage as an institution remain so resistant to change?

The study pays equal attention to male responses to globalising processes, asking - what has been the impact of the new trans-national economy on Indian masculinities? Are changes to the socio-economic order engendering a so-called 'crisis of masculinity'?

My study aims to counter previous neglect of male experiences and struggles in much gender and development discourse. At the same time, understanding the antecedents of both male and female attitudes will further the likelihood of constructing an appropriate response. This will enable a practical application of conclusions drawn for those committed to poverty, gender and development issues. How might state and civil society organisations address a problem that has hitherto proven itself totally unresponsive to intervention?

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