The misogyny toll

Dowry, in the Pakistani context, most often refers to demands for cash, jewellery, gifts and other valuables

By Editorial Board
May 25, 2024
A representational image showing multiple brides.— AFP/File

The practice of giving and/or demanding dowry is one of the most entrenched social problems in Pakistan and, like many of our other problems, it disproportionately impacts women. Dowry, in the Pakistani context, most often refers to demands for cash, jewellery, gifts and other valuables by the groom’s family from the family of the bride. It is akin to a form of extortion where the groom’s family can exploit the social pressure to have daughters married for monetary gain. Refusal or inability to pay a dowry can often mean the end of a woman’s marital prospects. Just last week (May 18), a member of the Punjab Assembly claimed that around 13.5 million women in Pakistan were unable to get married as their families could not arrange a dowry while arguing that dowry is unnecessary in the presence of inheritance laws ensuring a woman’s right to inherited property and calling for a law banning the practice, citing the example of India.


With an estimated 80 per cent of the Pakistani population earning Rs32000 per month or less, an exorbitant dowry is simply beyond the reach of most families. When widespread poverty is combined with entrenched social taboos against unmarried women, many families can feel pressured to take out huge loans in order to pay a dowry. However, in some cases, the demands do not simply stop once a wedding is done and can continue after a woman is married. Refusal or inability to pay can then lead to domestic abuse and violence, with some reports estimating that around 2000 dowry-related deaths are reported each year. There are several laws in Pakistan that restrict how much dowry families can demand and also overly ostentatious wedding celebrations and gifts. Specifically, the 2016 amendment to the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976 criminalizes the demand for a dowry by the bridegroom or any person on his behalf while also setting the limit for any voluntary dowry at Rs50000 and Rs20000 in urban and rural areas, respectively. Sadly, this remains a country where laws are rarely followed and people often try and get away with what they can. Particularly when it comes to embedded social traditions, unless there is an agreement between both sides not to adhere to a particular norm such as dowry, it is likely to be carried out regardless of what the law says.

That people in the 21st Century can still demand money from a woman’s parents for marriage as though they are doing them some kind of favour by taking their daughter off their hands is reflective of the fact that many Pakistani women are still seen as less worthy than men and are second-class citizens when it comes to the protection of their rights. While stricter laws against dowry might have some impact, it is unlikely that they will eradicate the practice. The experience of neighbouring India, where dowry-related deaths and abuse are still a problem, can attest to this. What is needed is a cultural transformation that ends with women being viewed as just as valuable, capable and worthy of jobs, property and education as men.