The issue of giving dowry has been part of the marriage traditions for a long time. Started decades ago, this custom is being exploited in many countries on a daily basis. Dowry is the property or money that is given to the groom by the bride before marriage. Now, dowry isn’t expected as a marriage condition for everyone however it is present in most. This has become some sort of a ‘business transaction’. The idea of marriage no longer depends on love and companionship however now it’s a case of increasing ones wealth.
Let me first explain how this topic became personal and therefore important. I was born in America, grew up in Nigeria, and now I live in Dubai so I had no connections to much of the inner traditions of Pakistan – where I’m from – that would allow me to understand the concept of marriage and what revolves around it. I watched movies, series as well as heard stories that revolved around the concept of dowry but never concentrated much on the fundamentals of it – the sacrifices of the women’s parents because of the demands from the groom’s side. Shockingly, not many people take any action against it. “The irony is that although most people do realize that this behavior is a social anomaly, we all seem resigned to it and no one bothers to fix it. Everyone talks about the problem but no one actually does anything to help society put an end to it.” (Mumtaz)
It wasn’t until my sister was getting married that the concept of dowry made sense in terms of being something unacceptable. It isn’t that my brother-in-law or his family demanded a dowry from my sister but it was more of the financial burden that came on my parents due to the marriage. In Pakistan, the wedding is an event that is the responsibility of the bride’s side and not a joint one. In addition to that, the bride’s side gives gifts such as clothes, accessories, etc. to the immediate family of the groom not to mention the gifts that are given to the daughters for future use. For my sister’s dowry, apart from what my parents set aside as her gifts, they had to furnish the apartment for the couple. Now, being in an upper middle class family, it was something we could afford, but you realize early on that it is very different when you can’t.
Just recently, I heard about this family that wanted a suitor for their daughter, and the condition of the family was to have the groom be settled in Dubai. Another was about this woman who couldn’t get married because the dowry money was too high for the parents to afford leaving her single till now. Another was for the bride’s parents to give the groom a furnished apartment or car before marriage. I heard these kinds of conditions were very “common” in Pakistani weddings and it is nothing short of being disgusting.
“Such demands shouldn’t surprise you,” said Alia Tareq, my aunt who faced a similar situation when people asked for her daughter’s hand. “Families are always asking for such demands before marriage, it’s the way some Pakistani weddings actually happen in the first place. And the sad truth is, most of the families actually follow through with it because there is no other way out. They can’t have their daughter stay at home forever, because then people will talk, and they don’t want that.”
My anger stems from the demanding of dowry and it being a tradition that has been part of the society for so long. Where it comes from is not the question that needs to be answered however why it’s still here is the real question. Marriages should take place on the basis of two families coming together, not one family expecting more than the other can give. More than that, the consequences of practicing dowry is even more absurd. Women are often left unmarried which as a result is disgraceful to the family and if they do get married with what little they can give, the women are mentally and physically abused. The event that should bring happiness to the family sometimes brings nothing but sorrow.
Marriages have started to become more of a business transaction than a ceremony of bonding two families together. An alliance in marriage starts just about a tornado due to the notion of ‘gifts’ being exchanged. Gifts that are merely dowry in wrapping, creates internal pressure in the bride’s family. Dependent on the culture or family values, the pressure of dowry varies. The pressure is due to the amount of dowry that should be provided to the bride’s in-laws. It works as a binding to the alliance that denotes the more the provided dowry the happier the bride would be with her future in-laws. It could either be demanded or given out of love for the bride to be. Regardless, the amount of dowry asked of bride’s family puts a financial and psychological strain.
Bride’s parents are seen taking drastic measures such as depriving daughters of their education because the money is saved up for dowry, selling plots or properties and taking on loans and debt. At times, selling furniture and other household items and begging are considered acceptable to provide the demanded dowry in lower caste families. (Jehan) These actions, to satisfy the hunger of dowry, have a psychological impact on the parties involved in the marriage alliance. Parents are constantly questioning the quantity and quality of the gifts they provide and whether it would suffice the expectation of the opposing party. Stress being the most common part of the psychological impact families goes through in this moment of joy.
Stress is not the only psychological impact which is the result of dowry. In worst case scenario, brides or family members consider suicide as a solution to escape the pressure. Suicide is reported numerous of times when the demanded dowry is not fulfilled and the marriage alliance that was formed has been called off. Brides are unable to withstand the pressure and cannot see any other solution. A bride taking her life would always imagine herself in a repetitive cycle where no matter who the groom or the alliance is, dowry would always be demanded as a norm.
However, suicide is not the only result of insufficient dowry. When the marriage has taken place but the dowry does not satisfy the opposing party, the bride goes through obstacles put forth by her in-laws such as constant taunts and insults. She is sent home within few months of marriage and divorced when the dowry or money given as gifts has finished off. When divorced is not considered, brides are tortured as well and when that is not enough, some are either burnt alive or pushed to a point where they would end their own life. (Babur) Dowry drastically affects the bride and bride’s family because of the negative impact that comes with it.
If dowry has such negative impact, why does it still exists? Why is dowry asked in the first place? Does it exist as a norm due to tradition, culture or religion? What does Islam have to say about dowry? Dowry exists due to the tradition formed by the people who practiced it. It has “long-rooted ethnical backgrounds, relevance and significance in the cultures they spring from”. (Traditions: The Economics of Marriage) Dowry has evolved from tradition and cultures of various groups within Pakistan. It has been practiced since a long time, the logical reasoning behind it is not considered. The idea of demanding for dowry has passed down from ancestors to ancestors. However, dowry came into being as a practice of gifts given to brides so her life in her in-laws is with comfort and ease. Over time, dowry started becoming a mandatory way of marriage rather a pleasant give away. To allow people to oppress the opposing party, Islam and its teaching is used to justify dowry.
However, Islam does not state the bride is required to provide a list of items of the in-laws suggestion. Islam states the groom should provide the bride with an amount of money used as her security. The money is lawfully hers to use as she wishes to. Islam does not oppress the groom either; the amount of the money should be determined by both parties keeping their affordability in mind. The reason Islam is used to justify dowry is because in the past gifts affordable by parents, without any restrain on their financial state, were given to daughters. Dowry should only be permitted if they are small gifts willingly given by parents.
That’s not to say, dowry doesn’t have advantages. In some cases, where the dowry is not asked as a means of financial gain but given as a security blanket to the bride, it could be beneficial. “Dowry can lead to higher bargaining power for women. It can also increase female rights to inheritance. Marriage payments (dowry) transfer wealth to the next generation.” (Anderson) But the truth is, in such cases these advantages become non-existent, especially towards the woman. These cases apply the transaction of dowry as a personal gain towards the groom’s side. No longer is it a case of a woman’s security but a means of how much the bride can bring to the family financially.
Dowry is practiced throughout Pakistan but does not mean it is considered acceptable by everyone. Families with daughters would prefer the weight of having to provide a list of unaffordable items be lifted off. No one prefers the societal pressure that comes with dowry. However, people who are not on the side of the bride do not mind taking it. Over time, they might not demand full-fledged lists but they might indicate certain things that should be provided. Families who seem to accept dowry shows the tradition of dowry is still innate in our traditions and cultures. When accepting dowry even when it is not demanded is prohibited, families would realize the ease of pressure and the burden lifted. The burden placed by themselves in order to satisfy the expectation of opposite parties.
With such extremes being part of giving dowry, the question rises if anything is being done about it. Considering the implications of such a tradition, Pakistani Law prohibits the giving of dowry under certain conditions in The Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976. “It restricts the amount spent on dowry not to exceed rupees five thousand. The amount of cash and gifts given to the bridegroom likewise cannot exceed the same amount. The violator may suffer an imprisonment up to six months or a fine of rupees ten thousand or both.” (Ali) However, the law is ignored or dismissed, considering cases of exceeding dowry is ever present in marriages around Pakistan. “It rightly deserves to be forgotten and ignored. The law does not take the rising inflation into consideration; it does not take different income level strata into consideration, thereby making allowance for different income group classes to spend different amounts as per their affordability. Interestingly, there is no provision in the law prohibiting the bridegroom’s family demanding a dowry.” (Ali)
As a result, of not being backed by the law, movements and initiatives are collectively increasing in terms of standing against the tradition of dowry. A project called ‘Fight Against Dowry’ (FAD) started in November 2001 to educate people about the hardships that come from giving dowry and raising awareness of dowry violence around Pakistan. Initiated by SACHET,
Society for the Advancement of Community, Health, Education and Training, it was a program that would educate people, especially the youth, about the financial, psychological, and economical strains of practicing dowry. It also implemented the media into their campaign by giving video messages and asking people to join the movement against the lawmakers to change the policies associated with dowry. As representation, silver ribbons are worn for support on November 27th. It “portrays the element of simplicity, austerity and courage against ills of dowry on demand.” (Silver Ribbon Campaign)
Likewise, various social activists against dowry violence have taken great measures to stop the practice of dowry. Shahnaz Bukhari, a clinical psychologist and women’s right activist, started the Women’s Progressive Association that puts a spotlight on cases of women’s rights including that of dowry violence. She has openly shunned the certain political parties and lawmakers for not taking actions against people asking for dowry and not taking legal actions against the predators of dowry violence. She has her own magazine that highlights cases of dowry and persuades people, especially women, to speak against dowry practice it “informs women of their rights, but also dispense common-sense advice aimed at reinforcing women’s own sense of self-worth.”(Curtiss)
In 2011, a group of social activists initiated a movement, Tehrik Sadah Zindagi (TSZ) translated to ‘Movement for a Simpler Life’, went around Peshawar to create awareness about “the negative impacts of dowry on the society.” (Movement Against Dowry Launched) Jawad Jalal, founder of TSZ, led the movement to various small villages and spoke of the importance of removing dowry from their traditions. “People are forced to get loans on interests and mortgage their properties to marry off their daughters as the families of bridegrooms hardly accept a girl without dowry,” says Jalal to Dawn News. His aim is to remove dowry entirely so people are not selling off their financial securities to meet demands. Also he believes more people should become part of this movement and make a much needed change in Pakistan’s society.
Some activists have argued that though the bride’s family does not accept the conditions of dowry, the in-laws might not think the same way. This as a result forces the bride’s family to pay the in-laws to get their daughter married. Certain activists have suggested educating the men’s family to refuse acceptance of dowry from the bride. “The idea is complex but fairly executable. If we don’t start today, this anomalous social behavior will keep haunting us and our coming generations. All that is required is for both the families to sacrifice their social harmony temporarily for the sake of the greater good.” (Mumtaz)
The cases of dowry are increasing due to dismissing the law and not having the right education that might prevent this from reoccurring. Moreover, government policies should include the banning of dowry completely as well as increase the harshness of penalties if failure to do so. In reality, dowry only benefits a few with a majority suffering the backlash that can sometimes lead to a lifetime of misery. Though it is hard to tell if the long practiced tradition would end, families should take initiatives to refuse from taking and giving dowry in marriages to lessen the cases of debt and dowry violence.
The tradition of dowry and its implications are best described in these two poems by women in Pakistan:
The Curse of Dowry
Credits: Saliha Rashid
My eyes are heavy
My thoughts are drowsy
As if they are the perfume of poppy
My hands are tied by the curse of dowry
Descended on me by the descent people of my society
Sabotaged my life through the wheels of my Ferrari
I tried to walk on the clutches of my dowry
Soon they were broken, leaving me in the arms of treason
I turned around the corner
Believing someone called me to return
I was on the wrong corner,
Alone, drowning in the curse of dowry
Sunburns of courage help me break free from these ropes
Because I can see fate has given me hope
To fly on the wings of belief
And breaking the mirror of disbelief
That may be dowry would have sanctified me
Credits: Naurin Ramay
My name is marriage
I am daughter of this earth
Was born free to surf
I was abducted by the tradition of dowry
Who raped my dreams without any mercy
i kept yelling to free me from the handcuffs of dowry
I was left alone in the dark alley
i was poisoned, i was tortured i was burned
But no one came to save me from this commination
Today, i lay in my grave
Cursing all those who were gay
Murmuring, turning their back and closing their eyes
As the daughters of earth were being burned and disgraced
I pity the callousness of my society
Where they own this tradition of dowry
Ali, Yasmeen AliYasmeen Aftab. “The Bride’s Dowry!” The Nation, 02 July 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
Anderson, Siwan. “Human Capital Effects of Marriage Payments.” IZA World of Labor (2014): n. pag. IZA World of Labor, Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.
Babur, Zaheer Udin. “Violence Against Women in Pakistan.” Violence Against Women in Pakistan : Current Realities and Strategies for Change (2007): n. pag. June 2007. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
Curtiss, Richard H. “Washington Report on Middle East Affairs – Shahnaz Bukhari: A Single-Minded Activist for Women’s Rights.” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
Jehan, Izat. “Dowry System an Issue in Our Culture.” Chitral Times. Chitral Times, 06 Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
“Movement Against Dowry Launched.” Dawn Newspaper. Dawn, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
Mumtaz, Rizwan. “Weddings in Pakistan: Down with the Dowry, Enough with the Spending!” The Express Tribune Blog RSS. The Express Tribune, 26 Dec. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
“Silver Ribbon Campaign.” FAD Silver Ribbon Campaign. SACHET, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
“Traditions: The Economics of Marriage.” Dawn.com. Dawn Newspaper, 23 May 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.