Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s most recent book is a unique historical account of the colonial conditions that undergird and shape modern understandings of dowry murder in India. Blending together colonial reports with her observations from activist work at the women’s organization Saheli, her major argument is that in understanding how colonialism transformed the institution of dowry, one must put political economy and the history of dowry within the same framework of analysis. In short, the changing patterns of revenue collection and land tenure that the British imposed, causing massive peasant indebtedness and land foreclosure, radically transformed the social institution of dowry into a major source of potential wealth in an environment of economic uncertainty. The British, shirking responsibility for their role in peasant indebtedness and land alienation, identified “dowry” as the root cause of peasant extravagance and other social ills, including female infanticide and the preference for sons.
Arising from such colonial discourse, Oldenburg convincingly argues, “dowry” has become a socially acceptable catchall scapegoat, deployed in law and everyday speech to cover a wide variety of marriage crises. Particularly common are sexual matters concerning sexual choices and orientation, sexual desire, along with sexual aggressions, rape, infidelities, and incompatibility. As such, this book is about much more than merely dowry, and Oldenburg writes extensively about how issues such as female infanticide and wedding expenses become embroiled in the debate over dowry. Colonialism, in short, gave dowry a bad name. Oldenburg is quite right to point out, throughout the book, that dowry can have potential advantages for women and women’s economic self-sufficiency. The women she interviewed at Saheli themselves asserted their rights to dowry retrieval.
The book is full of insights into the workings of Indian society, so much so, that one can finish the book wanting to know more about a variety of topics. The final chapter discusses Oldenburg’s observations that issues of sexuality get subsumed under dowry, and are perhaps summarized best in her provocative observation that “The battle for the control of women’s sexuality is the bedrock of all cultures” (225) – suggesting that this work may become a pioneering contribution to the (largely) unwritten history of sexuality in India. Throughout the account, there are numerous mentions of the aftermath of Partition, and how the experiences of refugees play into the equations of dowry demands. These observations speak to the transformative dimensions of drawing political boundaries along religious lines during India’s Partition, and are a good example of how all historians of the subcontinent must grapple with 1947 no matter what their particular subject of study.
Oldenburg raises a number of factors that come into play in creating the onslaught of dowry murders, particularly since the 1970s. She discusses issues including the rise of marriage age, and the increasing confidence that older brides bring into the matrix of joint families. She observes that one result of the increase of the life expectancy is that longer-lived mothers-in-law push back the time when the new bride can look forward to assuming the power as the oldest female. Such observations show the importance of considering understandings of the human life cycle as they play into history. I must strongly disagree, however, with the author’s assertion on page 222 that “the rising number of violent crimes can be interpreted as an index of progress in gender relations.” Here, Oldenburg equates a violent backlash with success, and gives the counter-examples of Dalits, and of African Americans and gay rights in the United States. While one can agree that the assertion of rights has caused those exercising power to invoke a violent response, the violent backlash illustrates the power of the remaining prejudice, and suggests how far a society must go to overcome it: hardly evidence of success.
Ultimately Oldenburg falls short in this work in explaining what happened in the 1970s that prompted so much increased violence at that time. Here, one encounters a potentially major limitation of “colonial history” as one’s major operative category of analysis, particularly for understanding...