Money, Marriage and Gender: Dowry in India

Guest lecture by Professor Ranjana Sheel

Abstract: Money, Marriage, and Gender: Dowry in India

Dowry is a crucial index of the status of women in contemporary Indian society. Its expansion in many parts of India and characterization by an element of compulsion and a spate of cases of bride burning, suicide and harassment reveals its distinctive present day form. Shifts in the nature and the consequent spread of dowry can be linked with the reinvention of tradition and the process of brahamanization begun during the colonial period whereby dowry marriages came to be equated with social and ritual superiority.  Despite anti-dowry legislation and vibrant women’s movement in independent India, a conspicuous increase in dowry has been witnessed. Dowry is indeed not a static custom but a product of historically changing socio-political, cultural and economic processes. It has come to mean more than a mere transfer of money and material at the time of marriage. In fact its varied manifestations can be discerned in the marriage negotiations that take place not only within India but also in Indian diasporic communities.  In this context, my presentation would delineate the complex interplay of money, marriage and gender in the changing structure and implications of dowry.


Dr. Ranjana Sheel is currently Associate Professor in the Department of History at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India. She received her PhD in History from Banaras Hindu University, and BA (Hons) and MA in History from the University of Delhi. She has also been Visiting fellow at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo and the Japan Foundation Language Institute, Osaka, as well as National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Dr. Sheel specializes in the area of social history and women's studies with a focus on India. As both a researcher and social activist, she has worked on issues of gender equity and women's empowerment. Her research interests have drawn her to studies on historical gendered changes in property rights, marriage forms and associated rituals, role of the state, both in colonial and independent India, and their implications on dowry and related problems. Her book entitled Political Economy of Dowry (Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 1999), research papers on marriage and migration,  and the changing marriage patterns in Indian diasporic communities in Canada and Singapore are some of the outcomes of her research interests. Dr Sheel also teaches graduate courses on gender concepts and women's history as well as the history of religion, culture and intellectual developments in Colonial India.