Just when we think that things have improved for women, reality hits hard. Pakistan, with 2000 dowry deaths reported per year, has the 3rd highest rate of dowry deaths among Asian countries at 2.45 per 100,000 women. Despite rising awareness about the negative consequences, age-old custom of dowry is still prevalent in Pakistani society. Pulse Consultant, a leading opinion research company of the country, conducted a survey comprised of more than 2,000 respondents. When asked if it is necessary to give dowry, 56% of of those surveyed commented in the affirmative. 36% responded in negative, & 5% said they did not know.

A Forced Gift

In Pakistan, families start saving for their daughters’ wedding from the day they are born until they reach their matrimonial age. It is also not hard to find instances where dowry deprives girls of education, health care and food as well. Many people even take out loans to cover marriages & what should be a heart-warming experience, of lovers setting out on a lifetime journey, is often a financial nightmare.

“I am against this practice that’s why I preferred not to take anything from the girl’s family & I made it very clear to them when my son was married off. But I had to give dowry to my daughters that brought me into financial bondage.” says Sajida Muzaffar, a homemaker who has already married off her two daughters and a son. “I’d observed that girls are expected to bring it along. People drop a subtle hint even when they don’t demand for it directly.” Sajida believes that a only complete prohibition of dowry will make a difference. “This traditional practice puts great financial burden on the bride’s family. It also turns out to be a great impediment to a daughter’s marriage.”

Suffering & Surviving Dowry

Dowry was designed in pre-colonial period to enable women to enter the marriage with her own financial resources & economic security. Over the years, this tradition has taken a turn for the worse. It has evolved to being a direct payment from the bride’s family to the groom and his family. Even If they don’t demand it, they still expect that they will receive a large dowry as a matter of right. Also, girls do not have any access or control over the things or money they bring at their wedding.

Saleha is a 25-year-old girl made strong by the events that changed her life. She was 20 at the time of her marriage. “Before our wedding, my husband made it very clear that he doesn’t want anything from my parents. Nevertheless, my parents gave me much more than my personal clothing & jewels i.e., furniture, home appliances, kitchen utensils & what not. But after marriage, he began making additional dowry demands, often sent me back to my parents’ home. He threatened to leave me unless my parents agree to fulfil his demands.”

Saleha faced continuous emotional, verbal, & financial abuse even after her son was born. “He prevented me from working & refused to bear our expenses. In fact, he wanted me to ask my father to do so.” Saleha also had no control over her dowry. Her in-laws exploited some of her customary marriage gifts. They did not return all of her stuff even after she got legal separation from her husband.

In Pakistani society, majority of women are financially dependent on their spouse and people are largely unaware of the prevalence and severity of economic abuse they are suffering from. Husbands usually have all the say over the financial issues and often times they use it as a way to control their spouse’s life in an unhealthy way. Therefore, financial independence of a girl can come to her rescue in the most unfortunate situations. That is attainable through inheritance or it can come with a dignified job.

Saleha also resumed her studies after she filed for separation. Meanwhile she stayed focus on being the best mother she could be. “I am glad to have obtained my master’s degree in Islamic Studies and I am currently working as a school teacher. Girls should be able to fend for themselves or parents should give their due share in property. However, it is not justified to augment the ethical status of dowry by characterizing it as a pre mortem inheritance because It can never be.”

Confronting the cultural depravity

Many young girls are willing to quash this practice, but the social pressures are such that often they feel powerless to take a stand against it. “The irony is that you can find many people who talk against this practice but no one actually does anything to put an end to it.” said Zahid Un Nisa, a journalist currently working with an Urdu newspaper. “If I talk about myself, I would never want to put this much burden on my parents. On top of that I find myself in a better position to stand against this terrible system. But most of our girls do not have a say in marriage agreements. Correspondingly they have no say in the determination of dowry as well.”

There have been many voices urging complete prohibition of dowry through legislative framework. But there’s an element of doubt surrounding the potential effectiveness of any such law. “Dowry And Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act was enacted in 1976 but its implementation in the society has so far been impossible. In fact largely in the society we’ve seen that dowry has always been acceptable. The law fixes ceiling of Rs. 2,500 as expenditure in marriage ceremonies. But we hardly no any families that keep this much of amount for the marriages of their sons or daughters. Some things are so entrenched in the culture that it is not easy to get rid of them. It takes decades to end”.

Ministry of Religious Affairs has proposed a ban on the demand and display of dowry items. The new law will raise the aggregate value of dowry that will be no more than 4 Tolas of gold, & the allowed dowry will be just cloths of the bride & bed sheets only. It further proposes that any of the guests will not make any present exceeding the value of PKR 1,000. Also in the case of divorce, groom’s family has to return all the gifts and dowry to the girl. Still there are slim chances that the new law will be able to end this practice altogether.

“These amendments are being proposed for a society which is of the mindset that you have to spend fortunes when it comes to the weddings of your daughters and your sons. So when your society is already molded into that mindset, how can you expect one single law to change that mindset. In fact, how can you make sure this law is being put into practice inside the boundaries of a house.” She further said “We need to take baby steps for something that requires the entire overhaul of a mindset. We have to deconstruct the problem so that we can identify its causes and get to the right solution. Also I believe that media has a major role to change the social mindset that surrounds dowry or burdening the parents of bride. They can influence people’s attitude and behavior through their engaging stories to discourage this practice.”

Roots of Social Malady

Many of our problems remain unsolved because there has not been a focused effort to really understand the problem itself. We think we’ve put an end to it, but the root problem still exists and will continue to reappear. We need to dig a little deeper, search a little harder, and solve the real problem.

Muhammad Akmal Khan is a veteran media professional, currently working as digital & campaign manager of Pakistan Peace Collective (A Project of Federal Ministry of Information & Broadcasting). Akmal says “Dowry is a by-product of traditional beliefs and values that are deeply embedded in our way of life. The idea of considering daughters as outsiders or that they lose every right over their parental property after marriage is one core reason of not ending dowry system. Dowry serves as an alternate for practicing the unequal sharing of wealth.” Dowry more often consists of lesser share of familial wealth than is warranted by law. Akmal believes dowry does not ensure our daughters’ protection, and that, instead giving them their due share in property is the way forward, thus enabling them to exercise agency to resist and cope with violence or any sort of injustice, or tragedy while having an asset that provides economic security.

Media sources have provided enough information. There has been a lot of discussion about the dangers of dowry on other popular forums too. Still, many public awareness campaigns fail to induce attitudinal change among masses. Because they start from the flawed premise that just telling people something is bad will make them stop doing it.

“Campaigns serve as a catalyst to begin discussion. It takes generations to bring real change. Moreover, the information we share through most of our campaigns is not enough to motivate people to adopt new behaviors. We insisted upon proving dowry a curse without addressing the motives behind this practice, and solutions are less clear. We must deliver a clear and compelling call to action to make people change the way they think or act.” Akmal continues, “It is another misconception that legislative action can create any fundamental change in social attitude. Discourse could have more powerful influence over people and their behavior. Faith leaders should take a stand against dowry system by generating a meaningful discourse in worship places. This subject should be a part of our discussion in schools, university campuses, in the home, and in public fora.”

Pakistan has achieved several feats over the past 73 years. But if we take a look around, our women are still striving for freedom. We endorsed and culturally accepted suppression and objectification of our women. Look at them and notice how we remained fail to protect their rights and dignity. Now it is our moral responsibility to build a society in which every women and girl are free from the confines of harmful patriarchal norms and can create the kind of life they wishes to lead. No government or law can do it alone. It requires concerted, consistent and continuous action through a collaboration and partnership between government, media, and each and every one of us.

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