The air is filled with the delicious smell of traditional Pakistani food. With bright decorative lights, the ambiance is one of laughter and happiness. Cousins, aunts, and friends gather around the bride with big smiles on their faces. Right in the middle of all this excitement is the bride, looking stunning. Her eyes shine with a mix of excitement and nervousness, knowing that this day will change her life forever.
But in the middle of all the merriness, there is something that starts to overshadow the happiness. It’s the topic of dowry, which is a sad note in a happy song. It’s like a dark cloud on a sunny day, reminding everyone that things need to change and traditions should be re-thought to keep love and happiness alive.
Picture a young bride adorned in a traditional attire, her eyes sparkling with dreams of a blissful life ahead. But behind those eyes lies a torrent of emotions, a mixture of hope and fear. For many Pakistani brides, the journey from the wedding venue to the marital home is filled with anxiety as they carry the weight of dowry on their delicate shoulders. The pressure to meet outrageous dowry demands often lead families into financial crisis - pushing them to borrow money, sell assets, or even resort to unethical means to fulfill these demands.
The emotional toll on brides is immeasurable. As they enter their new households, they are scrutinised, not for the love they bring, but for the material possessions they carry. Their worth becomes intertwined with the value of their dowry, overshadowing their individuality and aspirations. This commodification of brides, where their worth is measured in terms of wealth, is a harsh reality that clashes with the ideals of love, companionship, and equality.
Dowry is a centuries-old tradition in Pakistan, but it has become a curse for many women. In recent years, the practice of demanding and giving dowry has become increasingly common, and it has led to a sharp rise in dowry-related violence and deaths.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over 2,000 women are killed each year in dowry-related violence incidents. The average dowry in Pakistan is around 500,000 Pakistani rupees, but it can be much higher. In some cases, the groom’s family demands a dowry that is beyond the means of the bride’s family. When the bride’s family is unable to meet the demands, the groom’s family may resort to violence, threats, or even murder.
There are many reasons why dowry-related violence is so common in Pakistan. One reason is the strong cultural belief that the bride’s family is responsible for providing a dowry. Thousands of families find themselves entangled in financial burdens, often resulting in a distressing number of dowry-linked deaths and suicides.
Ironically, the dowry system is like a deep-rooted tradition that’s hard to break free from. It’s like a cycle that keeps going on and on. Even educated and modern families start saving money from the time a girl is born, just so they can present a big dowry when she gets married. This can put immense pressure on families and can lead to some miserable outcomes. Even people who openly say they oppose the dowry system, sometimes succumb to society’s pressure and end up giving dowry in the name of gifts.
The government of Pakistan has taken some steps to address the problem of dowry-related violence. Legislative measures have also been put in place to control and lessen the damage causes by this age-old practice. Pakistan’s Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act, passed in 1976, aimed to regulate the giving and receiving of dowry and curb its extravagant nature. The act also makes it a crime to demand or give dowry and prescribes a punishment of up to two years in prison.
However, enforcement and awareness of this law remain a challenge. Despite legal frameworks, dowry-related cases often go unreported or unresolved due to the lack of awareness, societal pressure, and inadequate implementation.
According to a 2019 report by the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organisation, 86 per cent of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. What’s even more heart-breaking is that a woman’s own home, where she should feel safest, can become the most dangerous place for her because of the dowry issue.
Dowry related deaths are a tragic part of the larger issue of violence against women, including other harmful acts like rape, acid throwing, burning, and other types of domestic violence. The average age of women who are killed in dowry-related violence is 22 years old.
The reasons for dowry violence are complex and varied. However, they often stem from the belief that women are a financial burden on their husbands and in-laws. The groom’s family may demand more and more dowry, and if the bride’s family is unable to meet their demands, the woman may be subjected to abuse.
The practice of dowry is illegal in Pakistan. However, the law is often not enforced, and many cases of dowry violence go unreported. In 2021, Gallup & Gilani Pakistan conducted a survey that revealed that 53 per cent of respondents expressed a desire to participate in the tradition of giving or receiving a dowry, while 38 per cent declined to partake in this custom. These survey results shed light on the complex sentiments surrounding dowry in Pakistan, reflecting a diversity of perspectives and attitudes within the society. Despite the growing awareness about the societal issue of dowry, it is concerning that 53 per cent of respondents still express a desire to participate in this custom. This high percentage highlights that the practice is deeply ingrained in society and may continue for a significant period.
A woman named Ayesha was found dead in a water tank in her home in Karachi on February 15, 2022. Her husband and in-laws were arrested on suspicion of murder. The police said that Ayesha had been strangled to death. According to a newspaper report, Ayesha’s husband and in-laws had been demanding more dowry from her family and that she had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse.
Another dowry case that was highlighted in the media was of Fatima. She was burnt to death in the kitchen of her home in Lahore on January 20, 2021. Her husband and in-laws were also arrested on suspicion of murder. The police said that Fatima had been doused in kerosene and set on fire. An esteemed newspaper reported that Fatima’s husband and in-laws had been unhappy with the dowry that her family had given and that they had set her on fire in a fit of rage.
Another reputed newspaper reported a dowry-related case that took place in Rawalpindi on December 15, 2020. Zainab’s husband and in-laws had been threatening to kill her if she did not bring more dowry, and they had strangled her to death when she refused. Zainab was strangled to death in her bedroom; her husband and in-laws were also arrested on suspicion of murder. The police said that Zainab had been strangled with a rope.
These are few of the cases of dowry deaths that occur in Pakistan every year. Hundreds and thousands of cases of dowry violence go unreported due to fear of retaliation from the perpetrators or due to the lack of trust in the police and the justice system.
Many believe that empowerment and education are integral to transforming this tradition. Salman, a father of three daughters, envisions a future where dowry discussions are replaced with conversations about women’s achievements and aspirations. “We need to raise our daughters to be self-reliant and proud of their accomplishments,” he emphasises. “The best gift any father could give to their daughter is the gift of education and make her self-independent,” he adds.
“It’s heart-wrenching to see a marriage dissolve over material possessions,” Ikram, a married man in his thirties, recalls how he saw his cousin’s marriage crumbled under the weight of dowry-related conflicts. He believes dowry is a potential barrier to genuine emotional connection and compatibility.
While Nida sees dowry as a symbolic connection to generations past, acknowledging the role it plays in preserving cultural identity. “Our ancestors held this practice with respect, and there is a reason why they practiced it: to ensure the financial stability of their daughters.”
Similarly, Mariyam, a married woman, states, “It’s a gesture that parents make to ensure their daughters have a strong start in their new life.”
Meanwhile, Zain, another young man in his twenties, advocates that marriage should be about shared values and companionship, not about money and materialistic possessions, “The focus should be on building a life together, not on the monetary value of possessions.”
On the other hand, Shahid, who adheres to more traditional beliefs, argues that the dowry system has its merits. “In our society, it’s a way of ensuring that a newly married couple starts their life on a stable footing,” he points out.
“The idea that a woman’s value is tied to what she brings to a marriage is fundamentally flawed,” expresses Ahsan, a software engineer by profession. He sees the dowry system as solidifying harmful gender stereotypes, where women are reduced to commodities and their worth is measured in material possessions.
“In a society where financial stability matters, dowry can offer a practical foundation for a couple,” elucidates M Kamran, a father of two daughters and a son. His viewpoint underscores the idea that dowry can provide a safety net for the newlyweds as they embark on their marital journey.
However, Sana, who recently got married and chose a simple nikkah ceremony, believes that marriage should be about love and companionship, not transactions.
On the other hand, Khoula, a mother of two daughters, acknowledges that dowry has practical implications. “In a society where financial stability matters, dowry can provide a safety net,” she stresses.
Nadia, a young girl, emphasises the importance of balance so that dowry helps newlyweds and support their future instead of being all about extravagant displays. “We should move away from lavish displays and focus on essential support,” suggests Nadia.
Despite the weight of tradition and societal expectations, whispers of resistance have begun to echo. Empowered by education, awareness and a longing for change, many Pakistanis are challenging the shackles of dowry. Organisations and activists are working tirelessly to raise awareness about the detrimental effects of dowry and advocating for legislative reforms. Their battle is one that seeks to redefine the very essence of marriage - a partnership built on mutual respect, love and equality.
*Names have been changed to retain privacy
Sanobar Nadir is a Mass Communication Research Scholar and a freelance writer.