From the Graceful Sari to the Scourge of Dowry: Indian Women in the Crucible of Tradition

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Kerala University Journal of Legal Studies


India is not just the exotic, mystifying spiritual icon of a captivating land. Far from that. It is a bustling place of thriving, up-and-coming businesses, but it is also beset with millions of problems, like any other country: poverty, discrimination, corruption, political intrigue, and political radicalism. Atop all these issues, in my mind, sits the lack of equality, discrimination against and oppression of women. This oppression is engrained and is practiced by virtually all: the husband, the father, the in-laws, the kinship, the community, the religion, the culture, the custom, the political class, the government, the law, the private sector. It even cuts across the other great problem of structural inequality, i.e. the caste system, only nominally abolished, but still very much part of Indian reality.

Within this vast array of problems that surround life and particularly women, this brief paper focuses on two tribulations, which, arguably, are uniquely Indian. One of them, dowry in the form of demanded cash, jewelry, and other material wealth is manifestly objectionable from a natural and positive law perspective. The other one, the traditional quasi-mandate of wearing the sari, is slightly more ambiguous and can be considered, on the face of it, a mere annoyance, but it is much more abidingly restrictive, because it is the culture firmly regulating women’s attire in order to control the reactions of men. A cross-cultural analysis and evaluation of these two problems will be done primarily through the lens of human rights, determining that borderline of acceptability of culture in universal human rights law. I argue that government has a duty to respect, to protect and ensure human rights of women, including a positive obligation to build the human and material infrastructure that would put into practice a policy and law that is often present only on paper.

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