Dowry is a practice of giving gifts to the bride and the groom’s family, and apparently it seems like a harmless exercise. After all, who does not want to give something to their daughter but this ‘something’ assumes new meaning when the groom’s parents start demanding dowry at the time of marriage. Sometimes these demands include giving jewellery, heavy cash or even expensive cars. It does not make any difference to affluent class but those who cannot afford it, have to face a lot of difficulties. Sometimes girls stay unmarried simply because their poor parents cannot give dowry; sometimes, out of pressure, people go into debts and sometimes girls, out of frustration, resort to extreme measures like suicide. According to statistics, Pakistan has the highest reported number of dowry death rates per 100,000 women in the world.
If one goes deeper, one finds that dowry is a social menace. This evil system is firmly rooted in our culture. A majority of Pakistanis believe that dowry plays crucial role in marriage, while some believe that it is not possible for a girl to get married without a dowry. A survey in 2017 by Gallup Pakistan showed that 56 per cent of the population expects the girl to bring dowry to marriage.
The past governments, with a view to imposing restriction on marriage expenses, dowry and bridal gifts, enacted several laws including West Pakistan Dowry (Prohibition of Display) Act, 1967; Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act, 1976; The Marriage (Prohibition of Wasteful Expenses) Act, 1997; The Marriage Functions (Ostentatious Displays) Ordinance, 1999 and The Marriage Functions (Prohibition of Ostentatious Displays and Wasteful Expenses) Ordinance, 2000. But unfortunately, these laws could not be implemented with full force and people kept on giving dowry and blatantly made a mockery of these laws.
But now, finally, there is a sigh of relief for the parents and girls. Recently, a law has been passed in the country to ban dowry. The groom’s family can no longer demand dowry from the bride’s family. According to the bill, the maximum amount to be given to the bride as her dowry will be no more than four tola gold. The allowed dowry will be just clothes (for the bride only) and bed sheets only. Also, guests arriving at the marriage ceremony will be banned from giving gifts costing more than PKR 1,000. In the case of divorce, the groom’s side has to return all the gifts and dowry to the girl.
So, what may be the implications of this new law? Can it be applied effectively? In this regard You! talks to a few social and human rights activists who share their valuable thoughts and suggestions…
Dr Rakhshinda is one social activist who has been instrumental in raising her voice against dowry since 1994. She initiated a campaign FAD (Fight Against Dowry) in 2000. “FAD was the outcome of my seminal TV series ‘Gender Watch’ which aired on PTV in 1999-2000 through SACHET (a non-profit organisation that I co-founded and led as its founding executive director for more than a decade). The series won the PTV Excellence Award in 2001. It was around that time that I realised that dowry is topmost gender issue and common cause of psychological, emotional and physical violence against girls and families. Hence, I launched FAD with the aim to create awareness among masses. We integrated FAD in nearly all programmes and projects of SACHET and tried to reach all regions of Pakistan through FAD talks, calendars, posters, paintings, TV programmes, conversations with media and young journalists, academia, police, policy dialogues with legislators, religious scholars and civil bureaucracy, lobbying with influencers and connecting with common people. The main focus was to establish dowry violence as a distinctive that either usually remains buried under domestic violence or perceived and practiced as a benign and beautiful tradition,” explains Dr Rakhshinda who is very happy with the recent ban on dowry.
“Though I am pleased to learn about it, I have yet to see the official notification. The issue should be handled carefully by also involving those who can actually internalise the issue and empathise with the costs of dowry violence,” she adds.
Anis Haroon, a human rights activist since four decades, thinks that laws alone cannot curb the practice of dowry. “It’s not a legal issue only. Law can be a deterrent to some extent but to wipe out the obsolete tradition of dowry, a societal change is needed. It is embedded in our socio-cultural outlook. Dowry is an old tradition adopted by Indian Muslims under Hindu community’s influence as girls didn’t get any inheritance from parents. To compensate inheritance dowry was given at the time of marriage. Men were supposed to be the bread winners and providers – narrowing women’s sphere to home. Now, the ground realities are different. There are thousands of women-headed households and with increasing education women are occupying many fields which were traditionally considered as male domain. This will help in curbing the dowry systems,” opines Haroon who is one of the founding members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and also the Board member of Aurat Foundation.
While welcoming the ban on dowry Saleem Malik, a human rights activist says, “Making law is an important first step, but it is just one step, which is not enough to eliminate a deeply entrenched custom like dowry. It is a social and cultural issue and it will change only by bringing a cultural change in the society. School education has an important role to play to bring a change in the status of women and girls. Media is another important stakeholder. The dowry will be eliminated when women’s right to land inheritance is materialised.”
Commenting on the recent ban, social activist Mahanaz Rehman, elucidates, “Yes, as an activist, I am very happy about this law, it was our demand for a long time. I have seen how parents of the middle class suffered because of this. Many girls become overage and can’t get married because their parents can’t afford to fulfill the demand of the boys’ families, who want to sell their son as a commodity that only rich parents of the girls could buy.”
But Rehman is apprehensive about the implementation of the law. “It is a good law if it is implemented in letter and spirit but people always find ways to get away from the laws so a fool proof system needs to be devised to make sure that people are abiding by it. We have so many good laws but people don’t act according to them. Either they bribe the law enforcing agencies or use their contacts to do whatever they want to do,” laments Rehman, Residence Director of Aurat Foundation.
Anbreen Aijab, a psychologist and human rights expert, feels that a comprehensive action is needed to transform the cultural norm to discourage dowry. “Dowry is so deeply embedded in our culture that it will take years to be ended. The laws can provide a platform where you can raise your voice against this harmful traditional practice, however we need to get them implemented along with a long term social change programme using media and other sources of awareness raising, Dowry is a form of gender based violence which needs to be ended in order to empower women. It is important that the men start saying no to dowry. We need to see this form of violence separate from domestic violence,” suggests Aijab who is heading Bedari, an Islamabad-based NGO.
Do you think general mind-set of our people is changing with regard to dowry? “In some cases yes. At least the show off of the dowry is almost disappeared in cities, and most of the educated young boys and girls are not in favour of heavy dowry. However, still, a lot needs to be done,” observes Aijab.
Well, Malik has a different opinion. “The general mindset of our society is that dowry is helpful for the bride. This kind of thinking is still prevalent in our society. It is taken as a support. Some people think that they are giving out the inheritance share to their daughters in the shape of dowry. That is a very lame excuse of not giving the inheritance right of your daughter. You do not do the same to your son.”
“We are living in a materialistic society. Lavish weddings and vulgar display of wealth are a part of our culture. Our general mindset hasn’t been changed with regard to dowry,” notes Dr Rakhshinda. “There are serious conflicts of interest as well. Who wants the losses of millions incurred by banning advertisements of bank loans for dowry items, TV shows promoting marriage expenses, bridal fashion shows? What would happen to the revenues of the wedding planners, beauty salons and dress designers if suddenly the youth of Pakistan start rejecting dowry?” points out Dr Rakhshinda.
So, what should be done to curb this evil practice in the actual sense? “Tough law and its effective implementation along with continued and coordinate efforts. My experience tells me that successful advocacy means social transformation not ceremonial gestures,” stresses Dr Rakhshinda.
According to Haroon, society needs to go an overall change to root out dowry system. “Dowry demands will be reduced when more couples will start marrying of their own choice. Money or dowry is not the consideration for marriage. Girls needs good education and training to become self-reliant. Families will not negotiate a bargain if choice is mutual. Women needs to be in all institutions at decision making levels and empower themselves to be acknowledged as assets to families rather than a liability,” highlights Haroon.
Malik shares the similar views. “Dowry can only be eliminated if we give preference to girls’ education. I mean, the purpose of girls' education should not be just to increase her marriageability, it should be for her career. When women have careers and incomes, they will be in a position to take decisions for themselves. It will also protect them from all kind of discrimination and violence.”
Likewise, Rehman strongly feels that education does bring change, educated youth can eliminate such customs. Educated and economically empowered girls can stand against such customs and boys should also refuse to accept dowry.
Why do you think people ask for dowry – out of social pressure, out of greed or for financial reasons or simply as a cultural norm? “Dowry is common in every class but mostly the newly rich class, who become rich all of a sudden because of corruption, are very fond of showing off, they set the trend, and then the middle and lower class follow them in their own way. People demand dowry mostly because of social pressure and out of greed as well. The boys who have dignity and self-respect should not accept dowry and forbid their parents to ask for it,” maintains Rehman.
“In varying combinations of all three. At times it is not even demanded vocally or obviously but it remains an unsaid and unwritten demand, expectation and norm, endorsed in the name of culture, tradition and misinterpretation of religion,” expresses Dr Rakhshinda.
She also talks about her Fight Against Dowry Advocacy Network (FADAN). “It is a loosely structured non-funded network driven by power of passion with the aim to envisage a Pakistan that sees dowry demand, dowry injury and death as cognizable offences; and a Pakistan dominated by youth that believes in simple weddings, believes that dowry demand is an insult to the conventionally popular concept of masculinity and is harmful for the self-esteem of the bride, groom and their families,” describes Dr Rakhshinda.
“Say no to dowry, lavish weddings and lead by example. Promote simple weddings filled with love and genuine happiness. Be a voice for an anti-dowry legislation in Pakistan. Never forget that when a gift becomes a demand it is a violence,” voices Dr Rakhshinda.
“Marriage is the beginning of a new phase of one’s life and we should start this phase without burdening girls’ parents. Marriage is a social contract and there should be no element of greed and selfishness in this contract. Both parties should respect each other’s rights and start this new journey with love and sincerity. What you don’t like for yourself, don’t ask the other for that too,” concludes Rehman.
Erum Noor Muzaffar is the editor of You! magazine. She can be contacted at: [email protected]