By Rafia Zakaria
December 26, 2018
IT’S the season of the dowry. Before the tents are set up, the invitations distributed, and the menus finalised, another sort of exchange takes place. Based sometimes on the wealth (real or perceived) in the coffers of the bride’s family, or in the greed (always real) of the groom’s family, a dowry is demanded. And just like the bazaars and markets of the country, a good bit of haggling takes place — the opening salvo is never the ultimate amount.
The assumptions in the negotiations have remained the same through the ages: the bride is a burden being passed off from one family to another, so a trawler of goods, none too big and none too small, must be handed over. In other cases, it is a game of numbers instead of goods, payments made into the account of the groom or the groom’s family. Such is the dowry game, the exchange of goods and money that, despite all of Pakistan’s advances, continue to remain a fixture in the arrangement of marriages. Although the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act, 1976, has made the practice technically illegal, it is still prevalent everywhere in Pakistani society and is carried out with impunity.
Last week, the UN Women Pakistan launched a campaign to attack this enduring scourge. It began a campaign centred on the slogan ‘jahez khori band karo’ or ‘end dowry consumption’. A number of celebrities, male and female, have signed onto the platform. Selfies with palms emblazoned with henna tattoos with the campaign’s motto have been shared all over social media. The campaign’s execution and components thumb their nose at prevalent ideas of masculinity that attempt to convey greater strength, but do not see the problem in extorting money from those with the ‘misfortune’ of having birthed daughters. The television launch featured a male celebrity who said he would be introducing his fiancé, but instead stood next to a number of goods — the television, furniture and appliances — that are all expected to arrive before the bride ever does.
The campaign is a timely one. Everyone knows the disasters of debt that are inflicted on families that are in the midst of arranging marriages for their daughters. In many cases, grooms’ families take advantage of the dynamics of face-saving and the spectre of public shaming to increase demands at the last minute. Failure to pay, everyone knows, will equal certain humiliation and so last-minute loans to top those already taken are arranged.
The game is not over after the bride bids farewell. If what is paid does not sate the gluttonous appetites of the groom and his family, the bride can look forward to a lifetime of taunts and torments. In the worst cases, and there are many of these worst cases, women are beaten, tortured and even murdered, all because of dowry disputes.
Cultures, with the depraved practices of their dark underbellies, cannot change without a change in norms. In this case, the prevalent premise that masculinity and dowry can go together is the idea that must be disentangled. A good and honourable man, it must be understood, cannot and must not be involved in extorting money from the family of the woman whom he wishes to marry. A man must not demand the fridge and the freezer, the cash payment and the car payment, or consider entering into a lifelong bond along with evaluating how much money he can get for it. A good man, an honourable man, in this transformed culture, would not bow to money and goods when he decides to marry.
It is not only ideas of masculinity that require transformation. Beneath the gifts that must be distributed to the in-laws, and the goods and appliances set up in the future home of the bride, is the idea that a woman is a burden. This idea is built on two myths: first, the belief that women who stay at home do not contribute to the household in terms of actual value, hence requiring this one-time compensation; and second, the idea that women are never going to add to the total income of the household.
The first is not true, because it assumes that the absence of an immediate cash value to a woman’s work means that the work has no value. Cooking, childcare, home maintenance aren’t ‘free’ just because women are not being paid to do them. Second, as more and more Pakistani women enter the workforce in a literal sense, the premise that they never add to the total income of the household is untrue. The two myths must be dislodged from the country’s collective psyche. At the root of the idea of dowry is, of course, the belief that women are inferior freeloaders benefiting from male labour while never contributing anything themselves.
It is the educated middle class of the country that can make this happen, and the means are simple. Along with all the nosy questions that people ask each other when they attend the week-long celebrations attached to any wedding, they could ask whether dowry was exchanged. If so, then the very effective social shaming tactics of Pakistani culture should be deployed to shame the groom who asks for and even accepts goods and cash in the process of making a lifelong commitment supposed to signal love and partnership.
A word, too, must be said about love. Even while most marriages in Pakistan are arranged, all marriages operate on the hope that the couple will grow to love each other. The idea that love can develop on the sidelines — when the main event involves the payment of money or the purchase of goods — is simply a lie. Love and dowry, Pakistani men, and Pakistani grooms, must realise, simply do not go together. The latter is instrumental only in ensuring that the most important relationship in life is permanently riddled with resentment and greed from its very first moments.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.