Dowry: a unique form of gender-based violence

Published: March 20, 2018
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The writer is an independent consultant and chairperson to Chief Minister Punjab’s Task Force on Women Empowerment. She tweets @Fiza_Farhan

The writer is an independent consultant and chairperson to Chief Minister Punjab’s Task Force on Women Empowerment. She tweets @Fiza_Farhan

Dowry is an “amount of property brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage”. On the contrary, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the term ‘gender-based violence’ (GBV) is used to distinguish violence that targets individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender from other forms of violence. Gender-based violence takes many different forms and there may be distinctive patterns or manifestations of gender violence associated with particular cultures or regions. Virtually every culture in the world contains forms of violence against women that are nearly invisible because they are seen as “normal” or “customary”. In my opinion, dowry is one form of normative GBV that is practised in South Asian countries.

No matter how much our societies have seemingly evolved, dowry or jahez is still practised in most geographical areas of Pakistan and surprisingly enough at all levels of social hierarchy. Historians trace back the tradition of dowry to the kanyadana concept along with the moral basis of stridhana in Hindu religion. The kanyadana concept entails that giving gifts is one of the ways to achieve higher spiritual and cultural recognition. Moreover, it is a way to compensate the bride in order to omit her from inheriting land or property from the family.

In a sharp contrast to this practice, Islam only has the concept of mehr in which the groom presents a gift to the bride. A short incident from the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) suggests that when Hazrat Ali came to visit him to express his wish to marry Hazrat Fatima, the Prophet (PBUH) asked if he possessed anything to offer as mehr. He replied that he had a horse and a saddle to which the Prophet (PBUH) advised him to keep the horse and to sell the saddle.

Jahez cannot be traced back to any religious custom in Islam, yet it is widely practised in Pakistan from the poor households to the elitist urban families. Not only is the practice forbidden in Islam, it is banned legally too in some parts of Pakistan. The law titled, ‘the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Dowry, Bridal Gift and Marriage Functions Restriction Act of 2017,’ states that the total expenditures on marriages, including on baarats or valimas, shall not exceed Rs75,000. The law also restricts the maximum value of gifts given to the bride by her parents, family members or any other person to Rs10,000. Further, making it illegal for anyone from the groom’s family to ask or force the bride’s family for dowry. If they still do, they shall be liable to a two-month prison term and a fine of Rs300,000 or both.

Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan are still behind in enacting a powerful law such as that of K-P. Even though the law in Punjab states that the expenditures on marriage should not exceed a ‘reasonable amount’, it does not clearly define dowry as a malpractice. A more desperate state could be found from the fact that the Sindh Assembly actually opposed the draft bill presented for banning dowry. Obviously, a great amount of criticism can be made on the implementation of the law.

Dowry is a cult, a malpractice that has been followed by generations of our society after importing it from another religion and culture. It is a form of violence, which is being inflicted on women, and is used as a medium to reinstate the patriarchal structures embedded in our society.

My question then is, when a practice is prohibited in our religion, partially or fully banned by our legal system, an import from another culture or tradition — then why are there almost 2,000 cases reported about dowry deaths per year? Why does Pakistan still have the highest rate of dowry death at 2.45 per 100,000 women?

Lastly, what are we going to do to stop this malpractice today to save our daughters from this unique and most ‘normal’ form of gender-based violence!

Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2018.

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