Dowry is a very ancient custom that was, and perhaps may still be, practiced in Eastern Europe as well as mainly in parts of Central and South Asia, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. And it is commonly given as a gift from the bride’s family to the groom’s, during the time of marriage. And while it was initially seen as a positive act, where its goal was to create stronger ties between the new family members, as well as serve as a means of support for the wife, in case something happened to the husband; however, dowry, it seems, has lost its true purpose. Over the years, it has become institutionalized as a form of violence against women – a form of violence that is shoved under the carpet, for society either fails to recognize its cruelty or turns a blind eye to the complexities of dowry-induced violence against women. What is even more distressing is the fact that domestic violence is seen as a “normal” aspect of life, especially in countries like Pakistan – both by women and men – and further subdued within the realm of “private matters.” And, so, nobody is ever remotely interested in this topic. Nor do they feel the need to do anything about it.
So, how does dowry – a “gift” per se – become an act of violence? Well, it appears that when dowry is given as gift, it is not only limited to monetary compensation, but rather material goods such as clothes, furniture, beds, and even sanitary supplies. And what may initially start off as customary, where the groom’s family accepts whatever “goods” the bride’s family brings forth to the table – once the bride starts living with the groom and his family, things suddenly begin to change. The groom’s family then decides that whatever the bride had brought with her (during the time of marriage) was not enough after all, and hence begins to make more rigorous demands. This change of mind/behaviour, and the demand for more material goods (if not money) usually takes an unexpected turn for the worse, where the bride’s in-laws become very violent, and start to physically and mentally abuse her.
And so begins this turbulence of violence against these women, whose only crime was their family’s inability (due to poverty) to fulfill their husband’s/husband’s family demands, which may, at times, very well exceed the woman’s whole family (annual) income! And these demands are often so ridiculous that one begins to wonder whether the woman that is being married off is even considered human at all. The whole focus is so much on money and goods – materialism – that the woman is then seen as nothing more than a precipitous commodity; an inanimate “object” whose essence is simply to be bartered. There are even instances where if the woman is unable to fulfill her dowry “requirements,” her husband then either threatens her, or takes on another wife, whose family is better able to fulfill his and his family’s obtuse materialistic demands.
Also, women who get married without a dowry are not only considered invaluable beyond their imagination; but they are also snubbed by the community in which they live in. Thus, their abuse and torment is almost seen as something that is deserved, which makes it even more dismal; for no one deserves to be treated so inhumanely, regardless of what their circumstances are. A human’s life is much more important than any form of material possession; unfortunately, people living in such communities are too negatively conditioned to know/realize any better. Marriage is then nothing more than just a business deal. And this brutal tradition continues to take precedence, where these poor women continue to be silently perpetuated within the bleak walls of their homes.
So, what can one do to bring about more awareness to this issue? I believe that one of the most underlying factors is to identify theactual causes that allow for such forms of violence to materialize in the first place. And then think of strategies that will help eradicate/prevent, as well as salvage the lives of those who were unfortunate enough to fall prey to such a despicably destructive custom; and further to bring peace to their otherwise extremely chaotic lives.
It’s sad that despite the fact that so many women suffer from dowry-induced violence, the issue itself is completely missing from the development agenda in many of the Central/South Asian countries. And physical/mental abuse and suffering is not the only thing that some of these ill-fated women endure; others are brutally disfigured with acid thrown on their faces (either by their husbands or in-laws), or in much worse cases, killed/burnt alive. And, of course, most of these cases go unreported, which further feeds this burning odium of violence against women.
Not too long ago, I came across this documentary by the amazing and incredible Samar Minallah (a brave Pashtun documentary-maker, journalist and women’s rights activist, whose research deeply mirrors mine), who also focused on this very theme of dowry-induced violence against women. It is called, “Against All Odds,” and can be viewed on Youtube. And I must say that it is a very poignant film that every woman and man should watch, especially if they want to learn more about this topic. Samar did an amazing job shedding light on this issue by interviewing actual victims, their families, NGOs, and women’s rights activists who are desperately working towards this ominous crime against humanity.
The author is a PhD Candidate in Development Studies and Rural Planning, focusing on Gender and Development (GAD) of rural Pashtun women. She is also a visual artist and the co-founder of Heela Foundation. Her personal blog can be read atsesapzai.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sesapzai.