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‘An unmarried daughter is a father’s eternal burden’. The oft repeated axiom dictates much of life in South Asian households, hinging the survival of women upon male whims. A change of home is mandatory and the failure to do so is deemed a disgrace; a roof of her own is out of the question. The burden must be passed on.
Transferring a daughter’s liability to another man, however, frequently requires greater investment. In addition to spending on the wedding, the groom’s family customarily expect the bride’s parents to wave her off with a sizeable dowry in tow. Furniture, home appliances, general electronics, cars, motorcycles, crockery, linen, clothing, gold and all goods of commercial value are welcomed.
The dowry forms the crux of the arrangement. Parents are coerced into fulfilling exorbitant demands made by their daughter’s beloved-to-be by taking up long term loans they struggle to pay back. The consequences of failing to fulfil the dowry demands are at best social ostracism if the wedding is called off by the groom’s family, or at worst endless physical and psychological (post nuptial) abuse of the bride- as has been witnessed in the past.
On 24th September 2015, a 26-year-old Aneeba was poisoned to death by her husband as punishment for not bringing with her the dowry of his choice. On 27th September 2020, a mother of five was set ablaze in Sialkot by her in-laws after 15 years of marriage. As per police sources, the torture initially began upon the bride not bringing dowry items that had been demanded from her parents. Many more such cases have gone by unreported in the media.
Death by a lack of dowry is a bitter reality in our Islamic Republic. As per a study published by Shalupriya Tiwari on SSRN in 2016, Pakistan, with 2,000 reported deaths over dowry per year, adjusted for population, has the highest rate of such deaths in Asia at 2.45 per 100,000 women. With many cases being unreported or misreported- especially in rural areas -the true figures can be nothing less than staggering.
Several nugatory attempts have been made to restrain the practice of demanding dowry on the legal front. After the 18th amendment, passing legislation to ban dowry lies outside the ambit of the parliament hence no national law exists criminalizing dowry. Alternatively, a bill seeking to imprison those demanding dowry for one year was presented before the Sindh assembly in 2017. However, it failed to pass for its stipulations were deemed too difficult to implement by Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah.
Similarly, in Punjab, the provincial statute of ‘Punjab Marriage Functions Act’ prohibits the display of dowry but imposes no restrictions upon dowry itself. However, in a historic move, the ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Marriage Functions (Prohibition of Ostentatious Displays and Wasteful Expenses) Act 2018’ coming into force made dowry demands punishable by law in the province with a fine of Rs.300,000 or two months imprisonment. Nonetheless, a bona fide implementation of the law is yet to be witnessed which is easier said than done.
Cultural norms prohibit exposing family matters before society, thereby rendering judicial remedies a taboo. Incidents of dowry deaths are hushed over to save the bride’s family from ‘further disgrace’. Moreover, a survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan in 2017 revealed that 56 percent of the population still expects the girl to bring dowry when married. The notion of dowry as the husband’s basic right is too deeply ingrained; little else is permitted to take precedence.
The sanctity of marriage is consumed by materialistic greed. But what else can be expected when the bride is perceived as a burden and the wedding a transfer of her liability? The ideological impetus behind dowry must be tackled alongside legal reforms. The UN Women Pakistan made several vain attempts to this effect, the most recent of which was a collaboration with fashion designer Ali Xeeshan.
The designer’s latest collection ‘Numaish’ for ‘Bridal couture week’ was dedicated to discouraging the practice of dowry. A short film uploaded to his Instagram depicted a teary-eyed young bride lugging a cart filled with goods on top of which sits her gleeful groom. The campaign received much backlash with netizens questioning the impact of Ali Xeeshan’s pricey designer wear for brides-to-be instead.
Although perhaps powerful in its intent, the campaign certainly missed the mark with regards to audience. Giving dowry is predominantly a grievance for those of the middle or lower income classes who tend neither to occupy seats at ‘Bridal couture week’ nor purchase designer wear in general- be it Ali Xeeshan or another. If campaigns are to achieve visible ideological change they must reach out to those who bear the brunt of this archaic custom.
There are many religious leaders who preach against the practice of dowry. Jamaat-e-Islami Emir Senator Sirajul Haq for example, demanding a complete ban on the tradition of dowry, has termed it a ‘corrupt practice’. It is such individuals that anti-dowry campaigns must engage to reach the grassroots and dispel false notions of dowry demands as Islamic or just. However, to do so would first require refusing to see the unwed daughter as a disgrace.
Societal norms perceiving women as a financial liability continue to fuel dowry demands. To redefine the culture of dowry as reprehensible, the role of a daughter must be reimagined as a blessing- not a burden. Only then shall parents refuse to bow before the abhorrent custom.