Sheleja Bajpai, 22 is pursuing a law degree from the prestigious law faculty at the University of Delhi. She has a good chance of landing a job at a respectable law firm in India after graduating, but her future has already been decided by her father Aman Bajpai.
"I am not against my daughters studying. But I will not allow them to work before marriage. They should have the qualification because it will help in finding a suitable groom. They can work only if their husbands allow it," said Bajpai from Patna, Bihar, one of India's poorest states.
Bajpai fears that if his daughter secures a good job it could become difficult to find her a husband who earns more than her within their community, where marriages arranged by parents are still the norm, as in most of India.
His fears were reinforced by a survey conducted earlier this year by shaadi.com, one of India's biggest match-finding websites. Although Indian men seek educated partners, 94% of them prefer a partner who earns less than them.
Dowry based on degree
For better or worse, a higher education degree or professional diploma is increasingly influencing the marriage prospects of young men and women in India. For thousands of parents, higher education is a valuable way to enrich their daughters' marriage prospects.
Many women complete university degrees mainly to ensure they can find a marriage partner equally or more qualified than them, rather than to seek a good job.
"Women complete higher education and even do professional degrees such as law, MBAs, engineering, mass communications, but prefer not to work. Several women leave their jobs after getting married," said sociologist Shamita Ghosh.
"There was a time when the sole criterion for marriage was the caste of the candidates. That is being replaced by higher education in cities and in small towns. The qualification of the bride and groom is playing a bigger role in the marriage market."
Education has always been one of the highest social indicators for the middle- and upper-middle-classes in India. In Bihar, the dowry given to a groom's family is often fixed according to his educational qualifications as well as the status and wealth of his family.
Some qualifications are more valuable
For men, a higher qualification often increases the amount of dowry they can demand from the bride's family.
Ranking top in the marriage market, in terms of the dowry price, are those who win entry into the coveted Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which produces the country's senior bureaucrats through a ferociously competitive national examination.
This is followed by doctors, and MBA and engineering degree holders from the Indian institutes of management (IIMs) and the Indian institutes of technology (IITs), the country's elite management and engineering schools. Least in demand are entrepreneurs and businessmen without eye-catching degree qualifications.
A groom with a good MBA can command a dowry of Rs6 million (US$132,000) from his prospective bride's family - just Rs500,000 (US$10,000) less than what an IAS officer can command.
"There has been no official study because dowry is illegal and no one will admit to giving or receiving it. It is entrenched in the social order and we hear about the figures being commanded by grooms," said Dr Nilima Srivastava of the school of gender and development studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in New Delhi.
Some believe parents push their children into studying a particular subject because of its impact on dowry or the marriage market prospects. But this is hard to prove.
"Nobody chooses a subject because he will be able to demand dowry. The IAS exam, for example, is so competitive. And qualifying at the IITs and IIMs is equally difficult. At this point all you are thinking of is studying and whether you are good enough to qualify," said Prakash Kumar, a first-year student at IIT Delhi.
Ranjan Jha, a college student from Patna, agreed. "I am against dowry. But I know several relatives who took dowry. It is only after you have become a doctor or an engineer that they put a value to your degree. But when you are studying, parents just want you to get a good job," Jha said.
Educated women pay less
Educating girls seems to have paid off for parents who find that they can counter the scourge of dowry through education. Parents of highly educated financially independent women say they need to find a much lower or even no dowry when a match is agreed.
A number of parents interviewed said they wanted their daughters to be educated and independent so that they would not have to pay a dowry to the groom's family.
A study by IGNOU's Srivastava found that the instances of dowry payment were lower for educated and professionally qualified women.
"If a woman is financially independent she will contribute towards the family income. The in-laws realise this and do not demand a dowry. Moreover, with a rising cost of living and young couples living without support from parents, men want that [financial] support from their wives," said Srivastava.
Some things never change
But for young women, especially from middle-class and poorer families, the expense of a professional course can puts parents off if they are not seen as able to improve marriage prospects. Parents would rather save the money to give away as dowry to secure a 'better' husband for their daughters.
"In our society nobody will ask how qualified the bride is. They will ask what [dowry] she has brought with her. I would rather save Rs400,000 to spend on her wedding than on an [expensive] engineering or MBA course. At the end of the day she will get equal value from a master of arts degree," said Ranjit Chauhan, a father from Gurgaon near Delhi.
"Many of my friends opted for engineering after school. But I chose a humanities course because I know that after marriage I will not be allowed to work," said Shreeya Somnath, a college student in Cuttack, Orissa.
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