The Hindu custom of dowry has long been blamed for the murder of wives and female infants in India. In this highly provocative book, Veena Oldenburg argues that these killings are neither about dowry nor reflective of an Indian culture or caste system that encourages violence against women. Rather, such killings can be traced directly to the influences of the British colonial era. In the precolonial period, dowry was an institution managed by women, for women, to enable them to establish their status and have recourse in an emergency. As a consequence of the massive economic and social upheaval brought on by British rule, women's entitlements to the precious resources obtained from land were erased and their control of the system diminished, ultimately resulting in a devaluing of their very lives. Taking us on a journey into the colonial Punjab, Veena Oldenburg skillfully follows the paper trail left by British bureaucrats to indict them for interpreting these crimes against women as the inherent defects of Hindu caste culture.
The British, Oldenburg claims, publicized their "civilizing mission" and blamed the caste system in order to cover up the devastation their own agrarian policies had wrought on the Indian countryside. A forceful demystification of contemporary bride burning concludes this remarkably original book. Deploying her own experiences and memories and her research at a women's shelter with "dowry cases" for almost a year in the mid-eighties, the author looks at the contemporary violence against wives and daughters-in-law in modern India. Oldenburg seamlessly weaves the contemporary with the historical, the personal with the political, and strips the layers of exoticism off an ancient practice to show how an invaluable safety net was twisted into a deadly noose. She brings us startlingly close to the worsening treatment of modern Indian women as she challenges us to rethink basic assumptions about women's human and economic rights. Combining rigorous research with impassioned analysis and a nuanced treatment of a complex, deeply controversial subject, this book critiques colonialism while holding a mirror to gender discrimination in modern India.