Caste, dowry and the illusion of scarcity


Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, I talked about the origin of dating and the female mate selection strategy. Some of you may have thought that, the traditional Indian marriage is better where parents search for matches for their children. In this post, I will talk about the traditional marriage market in India and try to dispel some of the myths about it.

First of all, the traditional marriage market in India is highly fragmented, due to multiple linguistic divisions, religious sects, castes, sub-castes, gotras, horoscopes, etc. Within each segment there exists hypergamy i.e., the tendency to marry up, especially among the female’s family. In the past, almost all decisions regarding marriage was in the hands of the parents. Nowadays, the parents mostly screen the prospective matches and the man or the woman has the final say. While hunting for prospective matches, parents frequently look for a “good family”. This term usually has different meanings for the parents of the man and of the woman. For the man’s parents, it usually means a family belonging to the same caste segment and economic strata as them. But the girl’s parents, it is just another term for hypergamy.

The woman’s parents typically look for a prospective groom who is more educated than the woman and has a higher income. If the woman is less educated and unemployed, then the man’s education and wealth is compared to the girl’s father’s or to that of other relatives. Now, there may be several men fitting these two criteria for a women in their town or city, but the additional criteria like religious sect, caste, sub-caste, etc. reduces the number of prospective grooms. Thus, an artificial scarcity is created. This raises the value of the grooms greatly. The parents of the grooms also apply several of their own criteria while bride-hunting, but there remains a degree of flexibility. Due to the perceived scarcity of grooms, there occurs a bidding war in the form of dowry price.

The concept of dowry may sound counter-intuitive because of the high male to female gender ratio in India. The value of females should ideally be higher in such a society. In China, for example, there is the concept of bride price, where the man pays a hefty sum to the woman’s family. But in India with its segmented market and artificial scarcity, there is still dowry. Even though asking for dowry it now illegal, it may exist in the form of bridal gifts given by the woman’s family at the time of her marriage. These gifts usually include whatever it is thought to be essential to start a new household, like a vehicle, a television, kitchen appliances, furniture etc. Expensive jewellery, clothes, watches etc. may be included. Sometimes it may also include an apartment or house. The high cost of dowry has been one of the primary cause of female infanticide in India since the medieval times. This continues today in the form of female foeticide.

Usually, the tradition of dowry is blamed on the greed of men, but it is actually a side-effect of hypergamy. The castes were originally based on occupations. They are from an era, when the son inherited the father’s property and followed him into his vocation. They don’t carry much meaning in today’s urban society where public education is almost free and there are a variety of occupations which are open to all. Rural regions in India still cling strongly to caste though. Yet, caste lives on the minds of many Indian parents in urban. There can be only so many educated and high earning men within their sub-caste. Since they are unwilling to look outside their own sub-caste, they are forced to raise their bids. This usually done by increasing the dowry or value of the bridal gifts. Some parents spend hundreds of thousands of rupees educating their daughter. The degree is almost never used as the woman becomes a trophy wife. This is another way of raising value of one’s daughter in a groom-scarce market. Some states which introduced affirmative policies in their universities, like reservation of seats for women or subsidised fees, saw their plans backfiring as they essentially created factories for trophy wives instead of empowering women.

Men also face scarcity as there are also a fixed number of young beautiful women in their sub-caste. The men who are the bottom of the barrel in their segment have to be flexible and look outside their traditional criteria. In states like Haryana, where the bride-shortage is acute due to the skewed gender ratio, men are looking for brides in states as far as Kerala. The men who are the cream of their segment, can easily get a bride. But, sometimes after marriage they may feel that the dowry given was below their worth and may demand more. In some other cases, many men enter marriage without knowing how much marriage costs and find that their dowry money doesn’t cover it beyond the first few years. This sometimes results in the bride’s torture, suicide or murder.

I am not absolving the men who do these things. But, a lot of the problems caused by the artificial scarcity can be fixed, if it were not for the caste system and hypergamy. For example, if they are unable to find a good groom in their own segment, parents could look for a similar groom in a lower caste or settle for groom earning a lower salary. With the blurring of caste lines, we will some of these happening and the segments disappearing. At the same time, the dating market will continue to expand. But, hypergamy will continue to exist as its genetic for women. According to a survey, only 5.4 percent of the total of marriages in India are inter-caste marriages. Some of the government policies such as reservation of university seats and public-sector jobs for lower castes, may have slowed the downfall of the caste system. Some lower caste women from those scheduled castes may find themselves reluctant to marry into a higher caste, because their offspring would lose those benefits.

At the end of this all, Indian weddings tend to have the most elaborate and expensive rituals and traditions. For the middle class, a wedding can wipe out years of savings of the couples’ parents. It is typically way more expensive for the woman’s family. Thus, many prefer a boy child to save on wedding and dowry costs later. Indian weddings tend to be an event to show off to the neighbours, relatives and acquaintances. Some banks even offer wedding loans but for small amounts. The total amount that a middle class couple will save, if they simply get married in a family court, can usually serve as the down payment for a house or apartment. But, most Indian parents are concerned about their prestige rather than their savings. Frequently, the groom’s family claim to be offended if the party thrown by the bride’s family is not lavish enough. In my opinion, the groom should insist on getting a court marriage and use the total money saved from his and the women’s parents to buy a house or make an investment. A single dinner feast with close friends and families should be enough.

So as you saw, traditional marriage market has its own share of headaches. The dating market may erase some of the lines but will create more competition. In upcoming posts, I will talk about these topics in greater detail.


What women want: A guide for the modern Indian man


Image courtesy: PublicDomainPictures

Whether one supports dating in India or considers it immoral, the fact remains that it is here to stay and spread. The need is now to talk about love and demystify it. Otherwise, we will keep seeing frustrated men resorting to stalking and other criminal behaviours including acid attacks. This article will explain the criteria based on which women select their mates and guide you how to improve yourselves to fit those criteria better.

Origin of dating

For centuries, Indian marriages were arranged by the parents of the boy and the girl. The girl’s parents would seek the most eligible boy for their daughter within their sub-caste and the boy’s parents would similarly seek the best girl. They would compare horoscope charts and negotiate the dowry. If an agreement is reached, an astrologer would be called to find an auspicious date for the wedding. The phenomenon still continues in most parts of India. However, increasingly more and more young people are choosing their own spouses nowadays.

The phenomenon is a fairly recent one and is mostly restricted to the upper economic strata. This practice of dating arose when people began sending their sons and daughters away for home for higher education or to find a job. The earlier generations lived with their parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and grandparents in large joint-families. The family patriarch (or matriarch) had the final say in all important decisions, including in the creation of marital ties with other families.

The concept of dating is unacceptable and even vulgar to many conservative Indians. News articles about honour killings are not infrequent. This is why watching popular Indian films is a rather amusing experience, because most of them are melodramatic love stories. The very audience, which cheers the fictional couple on-screen, are most likely to assault a real life couple in a public park. Some people argue that the rising popularity of dating is caused by its portrayal in films. Others argue that it is due to the effect of western culture on the Indian society. I, however, disagree with them.

Dating is simply a throwback to the distant past, to the mating strategies followed by our pre-historic ancestors. These mate selection strategies evolved over millions of years and were preserved within our genes. These strategies were suppressed, more in women and less in men, when our wandering ancestors settled down in villages, formed societies, invented religions and built civilisations. Soon marital ties became tools of bargaining, of economic and political favours. Soon, religious leaders and rulers of lands also began imposing their rules on marriage, mostly to fortify their own power and satisfy their own desires.

Lack of knowledge

With the fall of the controls that most Indian parents had over their adult children and relaxing social norms, the mate selection strategies lying dormant in our genes are once again expressing themselves in the society. As in all human societies, also in India, the men are expected to take the first step. But when they encounter the female mate selection strategies, they are baffled. They have nowhere to seek guidance. The popular media portrays love as something mysterious and divine. Their parents are as clueless them about dating and sometimes even worse. All this combined with peer pressure results is some distasteful and dangerous behaviours like stalking, groping, rape, suicide and acid attack.

Most Indian men feel that there is a scarcity of good women in the society. It is only partly true. In many states, people prefer boys over girls, so they abort female fetuses and try again until they get a male child. This has resulted in a skewed gender ratio in India. Furthermore, many women are married early in India compared to men. Some conservative parents try to keep their daughters away from men until marriage. Thus usually in any social circle, there are several men for every single women. This allows women to choose from several options, whereas men feel that there are only a few options for them.

As a result, men have to try harder to get a girlfriend. The effort that they must put to get a girlfriend in India is very high in India, compared to other western and many far-eastern countries. Having a intimate female friend is also consider a matter of status among male peers. Thus, rejection or termination of a relationship is considered a colossal waste of effort and a matter of shame. Such men are often unable to give up and start anew. They resort to stalking their woman of interest. This particular behaviour is also reinforced by the popular media, in which it is often shown that such persistence being rewarded.

Some men devolve into depression, resort to self-harm, alcoholism and sometimes suicide. Acid attacks also sometimes arise out of such rejections. The man angered by his rejection and waste of effort, may try to disfigure his love interest to render her unattractive to other men. All this arises out of lack of knowledge about the female mate selection strategies, the perceived scarcity of good women, misconceptions about love, and lack of guidance about self-improvement.

Female mate selection strategy

There have been several studies regarding which traits of men make them the most attractive of women. Most of the strategies are genetic and have been passed from mother to daughter for millions of years. Only some are cultural. Indian women also follow these same strategies, slightly morphed by social norms. In short, the criteria on which women select their mates are mostly the same across the world and are as follows:

  1. Physical traits: These involve all the positive physical traits such as strength, agility and facial structure.
  2. Personality traits: These involve personality traits such as intelligence, charm and assertiveness.
  3. Economic traits: This refers to how much money, power and influence the candidate man has.

Most women use a mixture of criterion 1, 2 and 3 to choose their mate. However, some women prefer one over the other. Furthermore, here “mate” does not necessarily mean husband or boyfriend, it simply means with whom a woman decides to make love with.

Paths to self-improvement

There is something common in the strategies of both men and women – they have both evolved to ensure that their offsprings carry their genes into the next generation. The male mate selection strategy can be summarised as: choose the prettiest women. There are other criteria, but they are all subservient to this. So, comparatively the female strategy is complex. Some men may accuse me of being deceptively simplifying women. But, I can assure you these facts have been distilled from various scientific studies. Then again this is the beginning, the nuances can be learnt later.

1. Physical traits

This criterion refers to genetic traits like facial attractiveness, physical strength, muscularity, lack of deformities, proper posture and resistance to diseases. Women have evolved attraction towards these traits, as a man with these traits could have provided them with protection in the harsh prehistoric times. These traits can also be inherited by their offspring which would give it an evolutionary advantage.

This criterion being genetic is perceived to be the most difficult to improve in. But this is not completely true, you can still greatly improve in it. Furthermore, even if you are blessed in this criteria by your parents’ genes, you should still take care of your body. Irrespective of your score in this criteria, you should workout and try to remain healthy. Playing a sport is a good way to advertise your physical traits.

2. Personality traits

This criterion refers to various personality traits. This may include intelligence, charm, wit, assertiveness, charisma, leadership, resolute etc. Most of these traits are part of your upbringing and a small part is determined by your genetics. In prehistoric time, these traits also provided evolutionary advantages to a man in situations such as conflict resolution and negotiating for resources. A lot of these traits can be inherited by or taught to the offspring.

A lot of these can be developed even in adulthood by practice. In my opinion, the most important of these traits is equanimity. Many men are disheartened by failure or are swayed greatly by criticism. An equanimous man, however, remains steadfast in the face of them and performs whatever is needed to be done.

3. Economic traits

Although, it is ideal that you score well in all three criteria, this criterion is the great equaliser. A high score is this criterion will make up for a low score in the other two criteria.

However, having such a scoring will also make you the target of gold-diggers. Such women will not hesitate to leave you for a better scoring man or cheating behind your back. Irrespectively, you should always keep trying to improve in this criterion by picking the right career paths and choosing the right opportunities. The one of the greatest delusions many Indian men have is that Indian women don’t care about money. This cannot be any more further from the truth. In India, poverty is constantly visible and soul-crushing. Women care a lot about money, it is an universal truth, but only in a few places it can be truer than in India. Women in prehistoric times, even before the invention of money, developed a strong attraction towards the man with the most resources. Because in those tumultuous times the man with most resources survived and could also ensure the survival of his family. It may also be noted that in some cases money is replaced by political power or social status in this criteria. But, they all are merely different types of resources or means of gathering resources.

End notes

So, these were some of the information that you were missing about the women. You may choose to use this knowledge for self-improvement. You may try to trick the system. You may also choose to not play the game at all. The choice is your.

Over the upcoming months, I will write in greater detail about the economics of dating and the traditional marriage market in India. I will also write about the legal and social rules that regulate the market.