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  • For Year 2000-07

  • Home > Gender Columns > Dowry: A Socio cultural perspective

    Dowry A Socio cultural perspective

    By Dr. Rakhshinda Parveen

    A personal perspective

    My parents were born in India, i was conceived at Dhaka of East Pakistan and delivered at Karachi, Pakistan. This implies that I literally descend from the patriarchal belt of South Asia. The status gained by being born and brought up as a South Asian woman taught me about all the losses ordained by this position long before I learnt through international exposure, experience and education that this was this was the result of Gender difference and Gender discrimination.am a woman, a medical doctor, a public health specialist, a teacher for Health Communication, a documentary filmmaker and a gender activist. All these are benign and powerless positions in a typical South Asian context. Therefore, I am a qualified non-specialist to express myself on this subject.

    Context: Pakistan Gender & Violence

    Violence against women is a global issue. Women have always been oppressed and abused intellectually, emotionally, physically and spiritually.I have collected a little bit of the Intellectual Grabage, to have an idea what “ wise” men thought about women.

    • God created woman. And boredom did indeed from that moment-but many other things ceased as well Neitzshe
    • God became a man,granted.The devil became a woman Victor HUGO
    • Men for the field and woman for the heart
      Men for the sword and for the needle she
      Men with the head and woman with the heart
      Men to command and woman to obey
      All else confusion Lord Tennyson

    It would be too naïve to reject any violent practices in our homeland. Gender-based violence is one of the burning agenda items for social activists as it relates to condition, situation and position of men and women constituting the society.

    Pakistan The land of the pure is characterized by regrettably low scores of development indicators, constant political instability, cultural heritage and traditions reflecting centuries old patriarchy and selective male-friendly application of the dominant religion-Islam.For being part of the male-dominated belt, the family in Pakistan is patriarchal. Traditionally, father is the breadwinner and mother is the housekeeper. The disreputable mother-in-law is an advocate of superiority of her son in marriage. However, this cannot be generalized. In fact, there is not a homogenous Pakistan in this respect. There is an urban Pakistan and a rural Pakistan. There is a Pakistan of masses and there is a Pakistan of classes. Considering the diversity of Pakistani society, female plight and predicament has different interpretations for women from different strata. They do suffer similarly in different ways. Institutional and individual violence are not unknown phenomena for all Pakistani women.

    Like all others, Pakistani society is governed by cultural institutions, beliefs, norms and practices. The contemporary culture, inspite of undergoing transition, mirrors images of centuries old civilizations and indigenous cultures. One such cultural heritage which has been adopted as a cultural institution is Dowry or JAHEZ. This practice makes a girl-child less welcome than a male child. Even today, a girl is perceived to be a burden and a boy to be a blessing. No wonder there are 79 million missing women only in South Asia and Pakistan, is one of those very few countries where male to female ratio is reverse.

    Dowry: Crime or Custom?

    What is dowry? Encyclopedias, thesaurus and dictionaries have explained it beautifully and simplistically. To me it is a form of culturally sanctioned and socially acceptable violence not only against women but men too.Despite relatively uninformed and unprepared acceptance of globalization as a way of life, it appears rather strange that the institution of marriage is still intact in Pakistan. Marriage is an important event in the life of a Pakistani woman. Getting married early is being lucky.

    Obligatory Jahez takes a heavy toll on the family of dulhan - the bride. Dowry is a multi-faceted deep-rooted gender issue with social, economic and health consequences. In spite of a consensus on disliking the practice, only a few have the courage to disown it.According to renowned Indian writer Shri Sharma the “evolution” of dowry is originally from a gift creating expectation leading to demands and greed. A large dowry can be an important attribute of status to both men and women.Dowry, which is popularly considered as a Hindu custom, has visibly migrated, escalated and embraced in all the areas of the present day Pakistan. It has become an active tradition, norm and religious practice for those who believe that there is an absence of such custom and tradition in their faith. The implication of this convenient forgetfulness is inattentiveness to dowry-related violence.

    There are certain other factors that ensure the continuity of the practice of Dowry such as:

    • It is considered an incentive to lure a more suitable match
    • It is submission to the demand of a perceived suitable match
    • It is used as an excuse for denial of inheritance to women (the expenses on dowry and wedding are unilaterally decided by the men folk of the family as transfer of inheritance by other means)
    • It is considered a good support mechanism to help the new couple so that they have a convenient start in practical life
    • It has become a socially forced fait accompli that is followed and executed ‘with a smile’ not withstanding, how painful it could be to the family.

    Estimates of the percentage of women who experience domestic violence in Pakistan range from 70-90%. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the extreme form it took included driving a woman to suicide or engineering an accident through infamous “Stove burning” usually when the husband, often in collaboration with his side of the family, felt (or made to believe) that the dowry or other gifts he had expected from his in-laws were not forthcoming or/and he wanted to marry again or he expected an inheritance from the death of his wife. During 1997, the Lahore press reported an average of more than four local cases of women being burnt weekly, three of the four fatally. Police follow -up to these cases was negligible, with only six suspects taken into custody out of 215 cases reported in Lahore newspapers during the year. In 1997, there was not a single conviction in a “stove-death” case in the country.

    HRCP reported only one case of dowry-related violence in 2001.In that case the victim was burnt to death by her in-laws for not bringing sufficient dowry. A research study conducted by sachet( an CSO)on gender-based violence as reported in the print media also confirmed this statistic.Does this mean that in reality also, only one woman fell victim to dowry death? I sent one of our research officers to find some clues. Here is her back-to-office report.

      “I met Ms.Naheeda Mahboob Illahi, advocate Supreme court on 9th Jan`2002. According to her, everyday a large number of cases of dowry-related violence are received but are mostly registered as Domestic Disputes. The details of only three cases of dowry-related violence were provided-2 cases in the year 2000 and one in 1997. In all these cases the victims were tortured mentally and physically by their husbands and in-laws, for not bringing sufficient dowry with them.”

    It remains a mystery for the social science researchers that why stoves burst in susrals only and why the victim is always a bahu? Ironically, in spite of very high frequency of domestic violence and frequent cases of stove deaths, dowry-related violence is neither perceived nor recognized as an accepted form of violence nor documented in social science literature. Therefore, unfortunately it is not a popular theme or priority agenda item for organizations working on women issues. There could be three possible reasons for this convenient forgetfulness. One is the spiral of silence and sharam, which implies that woman, related issues must not be taken out of the premises of home for the sake of honor. Second is the ironical fact that attention to the role of dowry in our marriage system has not gained deserved attention of international donors. Therefore, the hype stirred by comparable social problems like child labor or environment overshadowed a traditional area like dowry and related issues. Thirdly, the Ministry of women development in Pakistan has yet to acknowledge dowry and dowry-violence as gender issues.

      Interventions in the Public Sector

    Pakistan is a signatory to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), Beijing plan of Action and Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In terms of implementation, the ideals of all such treaties are yet to be realized to cast an impact. Empowerment, access to equal rights and emancipation are yet only distant dreams for a vast majority of women.

    However, there are a number of efforts now underway in Pakistan to promote the empowerment of women, such as attempts to refine the National Plan of Action, develop micro credit plans and enhance Khushhali (prosperity) bank, implement UN-Conventions and develop positive and productive partnerships with civil society, the CSOs and the private sector.

    Personally, I am convinced that there is growing attention being given by the government to gender issues including violence, and there is some movement in this direction. But there is no obvious, focused and concentrated effort geared to the understanding of a complex and common issue like dowry. This is valid for all service delivery, advocacy, research and communication interventions.

      Interventions in PAKISTAN

    Efforts made by mushrooming CSO sector in connection with dowry can be summed up as Disappointing.

    There had been localized and limited efforts by small-scale welfare societies in the 1960s and 1970s aiming at awareness raising and motivation campaigns to convince people at the mohalla level to resist the mindless following of dowry demands. However, with the advent of international donors in the 1980s, the CSOs in Pakistan have either undertook campaigns against other more visibly anti-women oppressive mechanisms like hudood ordinance or political marginalization under the Zia regime. Later too, the CSOs have taken up issues of expressed violence thus being symptomatic and not delving into the deep rooted causes of violence against women, dowry being one primary cause.

    Taking notice of the visible exclusion of dowry as a gender issue from the agenda and aims of development CSOs and self-acclaimed gender experts, I initiated fight against dowry (fad) through the platform of SACHET, which I co founded nearly five years back. FAD has been shaped into a project in Jan`02.The main objective of this project, rather a movement is to Eradicate (institution and practice of) Dowry in Pakistan. The key strategies to achieve this aim are research and communication. The activity spectrum ranges from surveys, signature campaigns, e-petitions, youth-parent consultations, legal advice, amendments in the existing law, lobbying, TV programs to anything possible under the sun.

    The Government of Mr. Nawaz Sharif in mid-1990s had introduced an ordinance banning grand wedding receptions (an implicit upshot of dowry). However, it was enforced for short time only, but is now losing its spirit. Right now, commission of Law and Justice, has drafted a new law in connection with wedding expenses and dowry. The consultation on the draft version is in progress.

    Challenges not Conclusions

    Such write-ups usually conclude by drawing conclusions and making suggestions. I am concluding by identifying some of the challenges connected with the gruesome practice, of dowry and the accompanying violence.

    • How dowry could be made a high priority agenda to create a critical mass to combat this institutional violence?
    • Are we ready to adopt this extremely critical gender issue as a passion?
    • Is our mass media mature enough to advocate and sensitize all stakeholders?
    • Do we have any political commitment in this regard and how far our governments are ready to go in this respect?


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