Monday, 8 October 2012

The Burden of Dowry

Among the patriarchal social customs prevalent in our society, the widespread practice of jahez (dowry) affects both rural and urban women. The amount of dowry a woman brings to her in-laws at the time of marriage varies depending on her family wealth, but certain material expectations such as furnishing the in-laws house and gifting gold jewelry and embellished clothing to the extended family of the husband tend to be the minimum standard for many families.

The potential implications of promoting dowry are evident in a society where the birth of a girl is marked by a cry of sorrow. Yet, it is often the sensitive nature of the wedding process that prevents the bride’s family from questioning the burden of dowry amidst blatantly expressed expectations of material gains in coercive circumstances.

Over a decade ago, I interviewed female survivors of acid attacks and stove burning during an internship with a Lahore-based NGO. As I attempted to pen down in a newspaper article the possible factors perpetuating such ruthless acts of gender-based violence, I learnt that for many of these women, their insufficient dowry exposed them to dowry-related violence and harassment.

Today, in the wake of the Oscar-winning ‘Saving Face’, the issue of gender-based violence, specifically acid attacks, has received global attention. Yet, the deadlock over the passage of the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill persists. Ironically, unlike the earlier draft of the bill which referred to dowry demands as a form of domestic violence, the latest version omits any such reference to dowry demands.

While the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act (1976), the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Rules (1976), and the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Amendment Ordinance (1980) attempt to limit the practice of dowry, ultimately, it is not the mere adoption of legislation, but its effective implementation that can prevent dowry deaths and dowry-related violence and harassment. Unfortunately, as the consumerist culture continues to escalate in our contemporary society, the practice of dowry as well as the incidence of dowry-related violence is on the rise.

According to Islamic scholars, the practice of dowry is not endorsed by Islam and gifts to the bride are only to be given voluntarily. Prophet Mohammad saw to the marriages of his four daughters and there is no record of him having given anything to his daughters except for Fatima to whom he gave simple household items when she married Ali. If Islam promotes minimal wedding expenditures and the only obligatory condition of the Nikkah Nama (marriage contract) is that of Haq Mehr which is a sum of money the husband gives to his wife, then there is a greater need for a concerted effort to condemn the practice of dowry in our society.

Written by Afifa Faisal

* A different and edited version of this article has been published in the News International, Pakistan

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