'A House for Every Daughter' ethnographic photography exhibit

Published: April 12, 2017

Photo from Sri Lankan wedding ceremony

Photo by Dennis McGilvray featured in his A House for Every Daughter exhibit

Dennis McGilvray, University of Colorado Boulder Emeritus Professor and President of the American Institute of Sri Lanka Studies, is pursuing a research project that began four decades ago in Sri Lanka.

Over the years he has done fieldwork on popular Hinduism and Islam, inter-ethnic conflict, and social resilience in the wake of the 2004 tsunami disaster. However, he has now returned to a central topic in cultural anthropology: kinship and marriage.

An exhibit of his photography in the Anthropology Department reflects the subject of a book he is currently writing, A House for Every Daughter: Matrilocal Marriage in Sri Lanka and South India, both of which focus on the marriage and dowry practices of Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims in the eastern region of Sri Lanka.

Here, women are expected to receive a house from their parents before a man will agree to marry them. Although romantic love can sometimes outweigh this requirement, the "dowry house" is still a key issue in most arranged marriage negotiations between the families of the bride and groom.

This Sri Lankan marriage pattern is termed "matrilocal" by anthropologists. It is rare in most parts of South Asia, where couples typically reside in a "patrilocal" household with the family of the groom. Although it poses a hardship for daughters from poor families, the matrilocal dowry-house system remains popular with many Hindu and Muslim wives, because it gives them rights to property and greater influence in household affairs.

McGilvray joined the CU Boulder Anthropology Department in 1980. His large Arts and Sciences core-curriculum course on Tamil culture and society (ANTH 1100) was unique for its focus on a non-western culture that few first-year students would otherwise study.

Since his retirement in 2013, he has served as president of the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies.