Once again, an anti-dowry law is in the works. Will the Punjab get it right this time?
“My daughter is getting married next month on the 11th”, says Mumtaz, my auto-rickshaw driver. He responds to my good wishes with details about the lengths he has to go to, to put together a dowry. He is being cautious as two of his nieces got divorced last year for “not being given a heavy dowry”.
Many parents have the same worries and concerns due to how deeply the dowry system is entrenched in society.
“The issue of dowry has two implications. One, a lot of girls are unable to get married. Two, many of them become victims of emotional and physical abuse due to this. While working with communities at grassroots level, I’ve come across several who constantly face insults and abuse by their husbands or in-laws because their parents could only give a small dowry”, says Irshad Safdar Ali, the chairperson of Ittehad Foundation, a civil society organisation.
A recent news report highlighting a ban on dowry by the government has fuelled the discussion on the necessity and effectiveness of such bans. It is pertinent to note that “instead of bringing a new law, amendments are being made to the Dowry and Bridal Gift Restriction Act, 1976. The details are yet to be finalised, nonetheless, the proposed amendment is focusing on imposition of fines and encouraging brides’ parents to register complaints if they are pressured to give heavy dowries”, says Dr Seemi Bukhari, a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) parliamentarian.
An official at the Ministry of Law and Justice says that the proposed changes include “prohibition on dowry/bridal gift/presents exceeding the value of four tolas of gold; prohibition on demand and display of dowry/bridal gifts/presents from any person; prohibition on presents from other persons exceeding Rs 1,000, prohibition on marriage expenses exceeding the value of four tolas of gold.”
The proposed amendments include preparing a list of dowry and bridal gifts and enter that list in the Serial No 16 of the nikah form to bring the Act in accordance with the new nikah form.” In case of divorce, the bride shall be entitled to dowry, bridal gifts and presents etc. The punishment for a violation is proposed to be raised from six months in prison to a year.
But will these amendments bring the desired change?
Tahira Abdullah, a human rights defender, has her reservations. “These amendments limit the scope of the law to ‘bridal gifts’, meaning ‘jahez’. They, thus, exclude the evil practices of ‘bari’ and ‘walwar’ (bride-price paid by the groom to the bride’s parents - meaning essentially, the buying and selling of young women/girls). The Muslim practice of mehr (dower) payment is also hugely exploited in Pakistan.”
She says that dowry is a “vast subject”, and requires “a broad-based, multi-dimensional approach to finding a solution”.
“The current draft bill is not the first one in Pakistan. Since 1964, governments and legislatures have made several attempts to enact legislation to limit the anti-women practice of dowry expected by the groom’s family from the bride’s family. They have all been spectacularly unsuccessful in enforcement,” she explains.
“The 1976 law first codified it, but it had serious loopholes, hence it could not be enforced. A similar fate befell the anti-dowry moves in 1964, 1967, 1998, 2008 and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Dowry, Bridal Gifts and Marriage Functions Restriction Act (2017).
The proposed amendments in the current law view the menace of dowry only in its monetary value, and do not even try to end it by law, she says.
“This is highly insulting and humiliating for all Pakistani women and girls, as it demeans their status to commodities and objects for sale and purchase,” she adds.
The views are mostly shared by Farida Shaheed, the executive director of Shirkat Gah, a civil society organisation.
“I don’t think that this ever has been an effective law. Therefore, I am not sure what the point of amending it is,” she says.
“A list of all the things that parents are giving to their daughters should be attached with nikah nama. Divorces are hardly [ever] amicable. A list would at least make it easier for the girl to claim and collect her dowry. Far better than that would be cash in her bank account,” she continues.
“But, I don’t see the logic of limiting this and increasing the penalty. With this, you can’t get rid of demands for dowry. For that, attitudinal change is required.”
Dr Rakhshinda Parveen, the founder of the Fight Against Dowry advocacy network, is of the opinion that “ban on display of dowry and limiting the number of items is encouraging. The government needs to go further... Great courage and empathy are required to finalise anti-dowry legislation that would clearly declare dowry demand, dowry injury and dowry death as cognisable crimes”.
Tahira Abdullah says that “the demand for dowry and burn injuries or ‘stove deaths’ resulting therefrom, must be included in the categories of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the definition of domestic violence, while recognising that dowry falls in a special category; link the demands for dowry to the need to end early, child, forced marriages”.
What can be done to ensure enforcement of the law?
Mariam Khan, the director of programmes at Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP), has worked on pro-women legislation in Pakistan. Based on her experience, she believes that spreading awareness among people on a wide scale will be beneficial.
“Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of dowry-related crimes; therefore, we need a strong and informative campaign. In many instances, people are not aware of the laws made for their own welfare. A mass awareness campaign is needed. I will also suggest making it part of the school curriculum.”
As Tahira Abdullah puts it, “no law against dowry will ever succeed until and unless social attitudes and mindsets change”.
“To achieve this, a multi-pronged approach is required, including adding components in the high school curricula, textbooks and teachers’ training; use of print, electronic and social media to highlight the evils of dowry; promoting progressive theatre plays, TV/radio dramas, films, songs, literature; massive advertisement campaigns featuring eminent personalities.”
The writer works as a communication specialist at an INGO. She is also a freelance journalist