After Neeya Naana, a Tamil talk show aired on Vijay TV, did an episode on young women demanding dowry from their own parents, social media was rife with memes, trolling videos, and heated conversations about the programme.
The show, which pitted young women against their mothers, shocked viewers with the blatant way in which the younger group laid out its demands. Many even suggested that the show had to be “staged” with participants only parroting what they’d been taught. After all, from wanting a helicopter at the wedding to asking for 365 sarees, there seemed to be no end for the women’s “greed”.
But were these women wrong to hold such views or make such demands? And more importantly, how do we read the overwhelming backlash that they faced after the show – which was certainly not scripted by anyone?
The News Minute had published an analysis of the show, discussing why trolling the women was a convenient position to adopt and arguing for looking at the larger picture: the obviously patriarchal structure of our society that leads to such perceptions.
Neeya Naana has since conducted a follow-up on the programme, pitting some of the women who’d spoken in the previous show against those who’d found their views so unacceptable – a predominantly male section, including some men who had trolled the women on social media.
While the first episode was extremely judgmental, portraying the women as selfish and greedy, the follow-up show was more nuanced, with even anchor Gobinath looking at things from the women’s perspective.
What emerged was the blindness to privilege that most men have. Some stated magnanimously that women were now “allowed” to study or ride a bullet. Others advised them that if they didn’t ask for dowry, their family would give them whatever they could anyway. All were united in their belief that they were somehow progressive for disliking the women’s views.
When one woman participant pointed out that an earlier Neeya Naana episode about young men demanding expensive bikes from their parents did not elicit such widespread condemnation, a male participant said, “Because the boy will go on the bike to work, earn money and look after his parents forever.” Such nobility, truly.
And even though all of them accepted that dowry was prevalent in the districts from which they came, and had clear estimates of how much a bride was expected to bring, they still argued that dowry was on the decline. That the bride’s family alone spends for the wedding was also something they agreed on while retaining their stance.
The problem, as the women pointed out, didn’t seem to be so much the practice of dowry itself but the fact that it was the women asking for it. None of the men had questioned the practice within their own circles. And except a few, nobody was willing to swear that they would get married without asking for any dowry.
The practice of dowry and how it originated as a form of property sharing was also discussed. Writer Oviya, who’d come as a guest, spoke about the feminist standpoint when it comes to dowry, and brought up a 1980s article in Manushi (India’s first feminist journal) which asked women’s rights organisations to look at dowry as a form of property sharing.
But making this argument is disingenuous if we don’t acknowledge that the gold, money and other wealth that a woman brings from her paternal home is often not under her control, especially if she is entering a family where dowry is considered to be the norm.
Understanding why brides themselves might ask for dowry doesn’t take away from the fact that we need to tear into the practice of dowry. You cannot work for an equal society if one gender is evaluated on the basis of how much it can provide and another is evaluated on the basis of how much it can bring. And that’s something all feminists agree upon (including the ‘bobcut’ elite feminists in Gobinath’s imagination).
The other curious perspective that didn’t get discussed much was “love marriage” (an Indianism if there ever was one) in the context of dowry. One young man assertively asked, “Why do you have this insecurity? You’ve studied well, you are going to do arranged marriage and not love marriage, Amma-Appa will find you a good boy, why are you worried?”
His question reveals so much about the kind of society we are. We expect young people not to feel insecure as long as they toe the line. If this young woman went against her parents and chose a partner of her liking, she wouldn’t be entitled to the dowry that they’d have otherwise given her. Is it ‘Indian Culture’ to marry for your parents’ property but not love? Something to chew on.
Further, what pray is a “good” boy? When dowry is so widely prevalent in the arranged marriage system and good boys have no issues with it, our standards for what makes a good boy are ridiculously low.
What’s more, as Dr Shalini, another guest in the show, pointed out, the men didn’t seem to think it was too much to ask a young woman to enter another family and immediately accept everyone there as her own, but found it difficult to digest the women’s own expectations.
In this episode, too, there was a young man who couldn’t stomach the fact that a woman preferred a nuclear set-up post marriage. But he didn’t have an answer when he was asked if he’d be happy to go and live with his in-laws after marriage.
The young women shared how they’d been bullied after the show, with random people giving them advice on why they were wrong.
The follow-up episode may not quell the bullying, it may very well generate new memes. But at least, they were given a chance to ask uncomfortable questions to those who were sitting snugly, confident about their “progressiveness”.