Today, I was delighted to find an e-mail from my publishers, Sage Publications, in my inbox. They do not always delight me, but what was attached was certainly uplifting: a scan of a page from Tuesday 14th June’s edition of The Hindu, a highly respected national daily newspaper from India. And on this page was a review of my recent book, ‘Broken Mirrors: The “Dowry Problem” in India’.
Previous reviews had left me downhearted. This one (bottom left of the page), for example, from another Indian daily, DNA, showed the reviewer had not even read the book; perhaps s/he had not even read the back cover, as it was plain to see that s/he could only offer a regurgitation of the popular assumptions that my research disproved. In contrast, Soma Basu showed she had given the content of the book very careful consideration, and it appears she was ultimately sufficiently convinced to set aside the conventional wisdom imparted by the media, women’s organisations, the Indian education system and the country’s government for years.
I’d like to share this review here, and I’ve inserted it below (while you can also read it on The Hindu‘s website here). But first, I thought I ought to say a little about why, as a photographer, my website carries details of a book written during my previous incarnation as a social researcher. My domain is visual now: so why talk about a book I produced that features not one of my images?
The answer is that as a humanitarian photographer interested in social issues, I feel it important to highlight my ability (if I may blow my own trumpet here!) to comprehend complex social problems in cultures that are very different to my own. As an outsider, especially when confronted with the hurdle of a different language, it is very easy to form assumptions based on what meets the eye. In this context, Soma Basu’s title is especially apt: “There’s more to it than meets the eye”. There usually is, and as a photographer I want to take my audience to that next level.
It’s what I’ve been doing most recently, for example, during my project on the hopes and visions of Egyptians. My photo essay on Cairo’s low-paid is a case in point. Many people believe that such people are so miserable with their conditions that they can only speak negatively of their lot. Perhaps worse, they may suspect them of intense jealousy and that they may even rob them, given half the chance. Yet hope and dignity are, I believe, universal. Once stereotypes of ‘the other’ are broken down, one can see that we have far more in common with each other ‘than meets the eye’. My desire to encourage the embracing of this concept, owing to its potential as a force for peace, is why I call myself a visual peacemaker.
So now… that article I mentioned:
There’s more to it than meets the eye (by Soma Basu)
In a short span of four weeks, even as I was reading the narratives of eight couples — either defendants or complainants in dowry-related cases of domestic violence and deaths — compiled in this book, there were media reports of 20-odd such cases. That their incidence continues to be high worries me a lot. It was perhaps such a feeling that prompted Robin Wyatt and Nazia Masood to take a close, hard look at the problem.
Based on a year’s intensive fieldwork in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore — which included recording interviews with the victims of domestic violence and also with those accused of the crime — the authors attempt to comprehend and explain the “sub-text” of dowry deaths and unravel the truth behind them. They do succeed in demolishing the conventional image of “dowry deaths”. By digging deep and getting at the root of a couple’s problems, they are able to expose the alarming gap between the legal mandate and the dominant social dictates.
Flavia Agnes, a social activist and a women’s rights lawyer, puts the age-old dowry problem in perspective, when she says, in the foreword, that it needs to be understood in the larger context of matrimonial relationships. For instance, the power equation and inter-personal dynamics between spouses; frictions between couples and their respective natal and matrimonial families; disputes over financial arrangements; and disappointments / frustrations due to unfulfilled expectations.
It is to their credit that the authors have gone about the job meticulously. They have diligently followed up each case with a copy of the FIR, providing notes for discussion and analysing it threadbare and, in the process, throwing light on issues that are quite often overlooked in dowry-related cases. In addition, social issues pertinent to every case of marital conflict are also examined in earnest.
Each story — whether it’s an account of a friend, a blogger’s first person narration, an interview with a marital counsellor, or the transcript of a session with an NGO representative arguing for the wrongly accused — is constructed refreshingly, and no two cases read the same, although the core issue is identical.
What drives the text is the simple point that a marital dispute tends to enter the public sphere in the garb of a dowry-linked issue largely because of the prevailing cultural climate, wherein dowry-related conflicts are considered less shameful or humiliating than incompatibility — emotional, sexual, attitudinal, or any other.
The authors are of the firm view that the multi-dimensional relationships arising from marriages could be negotiated smoothly if only the spouses and their families approached them with due care and sensitivity. This will help in minimising the fallout and, thereby, prevent them from getting dowry-tainted.
Where marriage counselling is frowned upon and remains inaccessible to a large section of society, the pro-women anti-dowry laws that are supposed to provide a remedy actually add to the problem. Rooting for timely and proper counselling, Wyatt and Masood strongly believe that many of the differences could be sorted out even within a crowded family environment. When that doesn’t happen, the marriage inevitably breaks down, often with violent and disastrous consequences.
Undoubtedly, the dowry system changes the lives of everyone involved, and the authors have tried to capture a true and comprehensive picture of domestic violence. Here are a few notable cases recorded in the volume. Shalini, at 16, fell in love with a man 10 years older, who as it turned out was only interested in her money. Frustrated with daily beatings, Akhil’s wife divorced him. Mohini’s in-laws used dowry as an excuse to get her out of their son’s life. Neeti poured oil on herself and got burnt.
The authors seek to find out, in every one of these stories, whether dowry was indeed the trigger, and conclude that it was rarely so; yet the incidents got labelled as such. They are clear that the anti-dowry law has failed to deliver. But they do not think any tweaking or tightening of the legal provisions will make any big difference either. In their opinion, this is mainly because the dowry problem has been misunderstood in India by the lawmakers and society alike.
Basically, the question is one of the various stakeholders making an honest attempt to end a marital discord and adopting a sensible strategy to realise that objective. Given the complexity of human relationships, Wyatt and Masood say, the dowry problem needs to be thoroughly re-examined.