By Dr Rakhshinda Perveen
December 30, 2018
Dowry violence is one of the many manifestations of patriarchal culture that is comfortably integrated in our routine lives. Different structures in development practice and governance as well as the society at large have cleverly assigned social sanction and legal safeguard to it. This custom is not only lethal to the self-esteem, emotional and physical health of the potential brides but to their entire families as well. Disconsolately, it has yet to be criminalized in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that has been ranked (yet again) the second worst country (148/149) on gender equality parameters as per the calculations of the report on gender global index by the WEF. This means that the war-torn Syria and Iraq performed better than Pakistan. Initiating charity institutions and enabling induction of some women in politics and non- traditional sectors are good optics but not necessarily effective means to abate gender inequalities. Pakistan urgently needs significant steps to reduce gender discrimination and improve protection of potential victims of Gender Based Violence (including dowry violence that is too often mistakenly confused or equated with domestic abuses). This would require courageous thinking and social innovation as preconditions.
Though the Beijing Platform of Action 1995 (to which the country is a signatory), adopted at UN’s fourth world conference on women, does mention dowry-related violence in its para 113, it took me, more than a decade to get the very term (dowry violence), included in the official documents about Violence Against Women, of our (devolved) Federal Ministry of women development. Working on gender issues, made me discover, that the concept “dowry violence” is alien to a vast majority of English-speaking elites in the development sector of Pakistan and therefore , technical and aid agencies too are generally unaware of this form of violence against women.
Dowry violence continues to suffer from marginalization and misinterpretation and due to the over dosage of negligence about the concept. The attention usually revolves around symptomatic forms of violence and approachability to only those aspects of “empowerment of women”, that assure, not to bring out, any transformative changes
Dowry violence continues to suffer from marginalization and misinterpretation, due to over dosage of negligence about the concept. The attention usually revolves around symptomatic forms of violence and approachability to only those aspects of “empowerment of women”, that assure, not to bring out, any transformative changes. This may be verified by any random check of the aid effectiveness, social class of a vast majority of the decision makers and patriarchal penchant of the media.
While working with different legislators in different governments for a legislation against dowry violence the most common off the record friendly comments were “this is impossible/you are up to destroying our businesses and social life/ it is the issue of our servants”. The biases of social classes are often overlooked in detecting and dissecting gender inequalities. There are serious conflicts of interest as well. Who wants the losses of millions incurred by banning advertisements of bank loans for dowry items, TV shows promoting marriage expenses, bridal fashion shows? What would happen to the revenues of the wedding planners, beauty salons and dress designers if suddenly the youth of Pakistan start rejecting dowry and bari (gift items from groom’s family) both? What if the media starts boycotting weddings and the vulgar display of wealth and power?
The abuses attached with the institution of dowry can only be ended when the State empowers women to stand up against dowry demand, injury and death and reporting such abuses. This in turn means that the state and its civil society have to do some deep retrospection by looking at the spectrum of dowry violence. They have to accept that it is rooted in the low status assigned to girls at the time of birth and even at prenatal stage, sex selective abortion, son preference, certain harmful cultural practices like child marriage, exchange marriage, vulvar/bride price, “accidental” stove deaths or injuries, acid attacks etc- lie in this apparently benign practice of dowry that has been systematically institutionalized.
Our legislators have to bring a tough law (that touches all three forms of justice i.e. corrective, distributive and justices in the social norms and practices of society) against the entire spectrum of dowry violence, in all regions of Pakistan. This is possible if they are pushed by a socio-culturally acceptable behavioural change campaign, navigated by genuine disruptors in the civil society of Pakistan. The time to say adieus to the stereotypical portrayal of victims and survivors of dowry systems has arrived. All campaigns cannot be run and won through Hashtags and disclosure of sufferers. Instead of searching for survivors of dowry violence it would be better to look around for young couples and genuinely enlightened families who opted for austerity in marriages and refrained from dowry demand. This may inject renewed energy to dishonour the elitist consensus that has been intelligently constructed and is being carefully executed in the development sector (to save the interests of the classes who matter in this country).
Recently UN Women Pakistan started an exciting drive against dowry demand and related issues. I earnestly pray for its success and passionately hope that eventually a consensus for a strong law, will be passed.
Dr Rakhshinda Perveen is a gender expert, researcher and a campaigner against dowry violence since 1994.