Understanding India from a distance, or even close-up, is not easy. The variety of warring ethnic groups, tribes, languages, religions, casts, class and political grouping complications is bewildering. Just one of those factors, social class, makes 1920’s England look like a classless society. The lowest class in England at that time, below the working class, was women. And that, according to the memoirs of countless Indian women who escaped abusive marriages, is still the case in India.
Dowry abuse, although outlawed in India the 1960s, is still widely practiced. The new name for dowry is ‘gifts.’ And woe betide the bride who brings insufficient gifts to the marriage. The ethnic woman’s refuge has been concerned for some years about dowry abuse in New Zealand. It claims to receive 600 calls a month from women about this issue, a significant number of complainants are of Indian descent. These women, many of whom are treated like slaves for failing to get their family to provide a sufficient dowry, are unable to return to their own families even if they had the money, because leaving a husband, even an abusive one, is a scandal that devalues the women and dishonours her family of origin.
Arranged marriages between equals makes sense. Which is why no one would be concerned about arranged marriages between Kiwi Indian men and Kiwi Indian women. But there is nothing equal about the status of a woman from India with limited English and no family support, dependent on, living with and under the control of her husband’s extended family. That is a setting ripe for Cinderella-like exploitation.
Using the term ‘cultural’ to excuse this practice reinforces traditional Indian values that include dowry abuse, which is apparently legal in this country. And regardless of the political apologies, most New Zealanders will not find this state of affairs acceptable. Notions of cultural relativity and, of course, market access do not make it acceptable.
I would be more comfortable with the practice if conditions were imposed such as weekly attendance for these women at a New Zealand language and cultural norms group. This would provide support and a way out of abusive relationships. It would also go some way to ensure the children of Indian families that cling to extreme traditional values have an opportunity to become part of mainstream society.