Social Policy & Administration

The Dowry Gift in South Asia: An Institution on the Intersection of Market and Patriarchy

This study examines the historical evolution of “new dowry” which is heavily composed of cash and market goods.


Dr Ruchira Sen, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of Journalism & Communication, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana

Kalpana Khanal, Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance at Nichols College, Massachusetts, United States.


Dowry refers to marriage gifts that are instrumental to the negotiation of the marriage contract. Historically, the dowry gift was constituted by law across the Roman empire.

While dowry has become largely irrelevant in Europe in contemporary times, it is still pervasive across the Brahmanical Hindu societies of South Asia. Moreover, what was traditionally token gifts from friends and well-wishers has taken on the form of “new dowry” since the colonial period.

“New dowry” is heavily composed of cash and market goods, including land and is frequently accompanied by violence against new brides when their families fail to make larger dowry gifts with higher market value.

This article examines the evolution of “new dowry” through a Polanyian lens. Unlike the neoclassical Beckerian approach which takes an ahistorical outlook to marriage as a “market” for matching partners and dowry as a market price, the substantivist lens à la Polanyi investigates the historical evolution of “new dowry” through the advent of market processes in the colonial period and the countermovement of legal reform in the post-colonial period.

Published in: Journal of Economic Issues

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