Violence, deaths, and other issues related to dowry, or the money or goods given by a bride’s family to the groom’s, continue to haunt many societies, including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Below, Nabiha Meher Sheikh, who teaches at LUMS University in Lahore (and blogs at I am Woman Hear me Roar), provides a critique of the topic, beginning first with a poem by Naurin Ramay:
My name is marriage
I am daughter of this earth
Was born free to surf
I was abducted by the tradition of dowry
Who raped my dreams without any mercy
I kept yelling to free me from the handcuffs of dowry
I was left alone in the dark alley
I was poisoned, I was tortured I was burned
But no one came to save me from this commination
Today, I lay in my grave
Cursing all those who were gay
Murmuring, turning their back and closing their eyes
As the daughters of earth were being burned and disgraced
I pity the callousness of my society
Where they own this tradition of dowry
A few days ago, a friend forwarded me this BBC story about a village in Bihar, India, where a tree is planted whenever a girl child is born in order to pay for her wedding and dowry. This has led to a huge decrease in female infanticide. The story is written in a very positive manner and I’m quite sure the uninformed reader will easily go along with this “feel good” twist. But digging deeper reveals, at least to me as a Pakistani woman, something darker and horrifying.
I object. This story reports something so sinister as if it’s a good thing that, frankly, I’m disgusted. Of course a decrease in female infanticide is a good thing, but not at the cost of the perpetuation of the very same patriarchal system that has oppressed these women for centuries. And, despite the fact that this is a morbid thing to say, it needs to be said: gendercide will lead to a demand for females, giving the sex an upper hand albeit at a huge cost. I don’t agree with it at all, as I doubt any sane person would. I’ve written that statement in order to prove that it’s very easy to give anything sinister a positive twist; after all, the world is not black and white, despite our best efforts to make it so. Good can easily come out of bad. I often have to remind my students, who are well trained in the fine art of linear thinking, that not everything can be divided into pure evil or good. What I said in order to illustrate this point: I lauded Zardari for passing the sexual harassment bill because I KNOW that no other party would have even considered it, and despite my personal opinion of him, I will thank him for it.
The writer reports, “Sneha, four, is aware that her father has planted trees in her name; the child says she regularly waters the saplings. As yet she doesn’t know what dowry is, and says the trees will bear fruits for her ‘to eat.’” What a joke! The fruit isn’t for her from any angle: it is for her husband, yet another man. Her life has not been spared because her family was happy at the birth of a girl child- it has been spared because the man who will take her off her family’s hands can be paid to do so.
I have an idea; a much, much better idea: ban dowry. Instead, educate the girls and empower them so they can earn and not be a “burden.” Educate and empower the women so that they can walk out of abusive and bad marriages. All of us, the women of the subcontinent, are well aware of how prevalent domestic violence is in this area of the world. The only reason why women cannot walk out the door, more so than societal reasons, is because they lack the ability to fend for themselves. Therefore, planting a tree for a wedding is most certainly not going to benefit the girl in the long run despite the author’s suggestions to the contrary. Furthermore, this is counter-productive and any suggestions to the contrary are absurd to me.
As a woman who has seen just how much the burden of dowry carries, I strongly believe it is a deep and gross violation of human rights. Too many women’s education and independence have been sacrificed because of dowry, just like my own mother’s. To me, it is a phallic symbol, a symbol of oppression, a symbol to be eliminated and eradicated- not something to EVER be lauded and encouraged. Too many of my gender have been deprived of their basic human rights because of this dowry, this payment to the man to take us off our families’ hands. It’s time to speak up against this evil- and I say evil because, for me, as a woman, this is pure evil. I realize and acknowledge that there are many women as well who will not agree with me and will insist that their dowry is their right. These are the women who know they will be deprived of yet another human right: their inheritance, just like my mother. But perpetuating the culture of dowry is, again, not a solution to this problem. Dowry, a concept that is anti-woman and patriarchal, is never the solution. And please let’s stop deluding ourselves that it can be positive: it’s like putting out a fire with a fire.
How is sacrificing women at the altars of tradition going to change anything? And how many women are we willing to sacrifice before we say “STOP!”? I’ve borne the chains of being a woman and have fought to be where I am. I have seen how despicable dowry is and thankfully, I have sane enough parents who didn’t ever bother collecting a dowry for me. Instead, they educated and empowered me to stand up for myself and gave me my basic human right to choose an equal partner who will love me for who I am- not for my dowry.
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