Outraged by growing material demands from the family of his daughter’s fiance, Ahmed, a Karachi businessman, revoked the engagement of his daughter Seema a day before the wedding.
The unilateral annulment shocked Seema and her family but she accepted the decision without remorse.
“My father refused to marry me off into a family which was given more to the material rather than the human side of the would-be relationship,” said Seema. Her fiancé’s family had demanded that her father pay for the carpeting of the house in addition to buying new furniture for the groom.
“For my father this amounted to social blackmail,” said Seema Tawakul, 28, who later married a London-based Pakistani doctor, without any dowry demands.
Cars are a much sought-after item
But Ahmed’s is only a rare example of defiance. Dowry constitutes an inseparable element of arranged marriages in almost all strata of Pakistani society; jewellery, furniture, electrical appliances and sometimes a brand new car or a motorbike are considered indispensable items of the dowry – to be given by the bride’s family to the groom.
For the bridegroom and his family, dowry is an issue of honour. Girls who don’t bring the riches of dowry to their husbands’ homes, are often subject to humiliation and physical abuse.
“I treated a girl with serious burn injuries. Her parents believed they were the result of an indirect assault on her,” said Dr. Ali Abbas, a physician at the Rawalpindi District Hospital, south of Islamabad.
This, says Shenaz Bukhari, a women’s’ rights activist looking after burn victims, was a typical case of intentional stove-burning, a situation wherein the victim is exposed to a faulty kerosene oil stove which eventually bursts when burning at full steam.
It is an easy and difficult-to-prove way of getting rid of a woman who does not bring enough dowry with her, Bukhari says.
One voice frequently heard against dowry is that of Feryal Gohar. A TV celebrity, Gohar is also a sociologist-researcher and the goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund Activities (UNFPA).
She says that life of most girls after marriage becomes more tragic because she is considered family property.
“I treated a girl with serious burn injuries. Her parents believed they were the result of an indirect assault on her”
Dr. Ali Abbas, physician
“The girl child in many homes is a cause for sorrow because she does not symbolise prosperity but seen as a source of problems her parents must face in bringing her up and later marrying her off,” says Gohar.
Siddiqul Farooq, a journalist-turned politician of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (N) party believes that enforcement of laws is essential but comes only second to social attitudes.
“People at large feel that the government must move fast to root out the curse of dowry but I would say all the moves would be futile unless these people give up their hypocrisy and refuse to give in to dowry demands, “ Farooq opined.
Dr. Rakhshanda Perveen, who heads the Society for Advancement of Community, Health, Education, and Training (SACHET), a non-governmental organization (NGO) believes that the problem is deep-rooted and only collective action can stamp it out.
The NGO recently launched a five-year advocacy project – Fight Against Dowry (FAD) with an aim to sensitise people and create awareness against the practice of dowry and violence.
Most parents – affluent or otherwise – give into dowry demands to protect their honour. To satisfy the demands, some even use up their pension money that would have otherwise helped them in retirement.
Kaleem Jaffery, a retired government official living in the capital Islamabad, had to mortgage his house to get the groom a new car, two days before the wedding.
“I had to go for this bitter option because my family did not want to become a laughing stock of the community,” Jaffry replied when asked as to why he did not resist the demands by the groom’s family.
Although the Dowry and Bridal (Restriction) Act 1976 bars the practice of dowry, and ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif passed a law to promote austere weddings, people found ways to circumvent the law, and continued to arrange lavish feasts and spend extravagantly.
“I had to go for this bitter option because my family did not want to become a laughing stock of the community”
Kaleem Jaffery, retired government official
“Legislation, no matter how effective it may be, will not bring about any change as long as the society continues to treat marriage as business and a matter of prestige” said M. Bilal, a senior Islamabad lawyer.
Pakistan’s official Law Commission, headed by the chief Justice of the apex Supreme Court of Pakistan Sheikh Riaz Ahmad, is currently considering a draft law to deter the practice.
“It is quite easy to speak against dowry at public fora but we need to bring on board people from all walks of life to devise a strategy and then work for its strict enforcement,” M.Bilal says.
Mere lip service will only perpetuate the problem, he said. Many agree but do not know how to get rid of the problem which requires a combination of social change and legal recourse.