by Nusrat Ara
Shazia Akhtar and her family have been preparing for months for her wedding. The family has saved for years for the big day. With marriages in Kashmir getting more expensive, the burden seems to be getting bigger and bigger, especially for parents of a daughter.
The gold jewellery and other household gifts given to the bride and gifts to the family members and relatives of the groom form the major part of the expenses. Other bridal gifts, the trousseau, and the grand feast on the wedding day are also major expenses.
Akhtar is worried that with things becoming costlier, it is impossible to get a daughter married these days. “The list is getting longer with time, as lifestyles are changing and people are getting more materialistic.”
“I have seen many girls get married very late because their parents haven’t finished saving for their marriages or collecting enough things for them,” says Akhtar, citing the example of her cousin whose parents did not try to get her married on time because they lacked resources. By the time they were ready, she had passed the desirable age. According to Akhtar, they are still looking for a match for her.
Even though dowry is not a Muslim custom, it has become a norm in Kashmir, which some blame on the Hindu influence on the region. The story is so familiar to me. Again and again, I hear similar tales from my friends and relatives. Education, social status, and religious abhorrence are no deterrent. Its growing presence and acceptance is leading to problems in the society, which are sometimes extreme.
On November 6, 2011, Shazia Majeed was found hanging in her home. A top student from Kashmir University, Majeed worked as a librarian at the Islamic University of Science and Technology. According to her father, she was murdered by her husband and was a victim of dowry and domestic violence. Her husband constantly pressured her to bring more money from her family to build a separate house for them to live away from her in-laws.
Along with three other friends, Nadeem Qadiri, a lawyer and a social activist, organised a protest for Majeed, which brought out a large number of women and other members of civil society.
The invitation read, “There are many Shazias living in our society. They may be on the brink of being murdered or committing suicide. It is the moral responsibility of society to rise up to the occasion and make sure that justice be assured to Shazia, and at the same time show support towards those unfortunate women who are still facing violations.”
Sumaira Jan, a resident of Srinagar, married her cousin Bilal Ahmad Pandit some four years ago. She was murdered last May, allegedly by Pandit and her in-laws. Her father, Farooq Ahmad Khan, told me the problems with the in-laws on dowry issues began soon after marriage.
“For the first few months everything was alright. Then they asked her to sell her jewellery to buy a piece of land for them. She resisted, and as a result, they created problems for her on different pretexts,” says Khan.
“She was staying with us for quite some time and had gone to attend a family function from her in-laws’ side in the afternoon. And in the evening, I rushed over to find her dead, drenched in blood in her bedroom,” adds Khan. Her husband, who is in police custody, has admitted to murdering her.
A few years back, Sumaira had approached the State Commission for Women, a government body meant to protect women’s rights. “Her husband and his family agreed to start a new life in front of the officials, but things never really changed for [Sumaira],” says Khan.
Shamim Firdous, chairperson of the State Commission for Women, says, “We receive cases of women where the in-laws demand cars, motorbikes, TVs, land, or cash from towns, villages, or far-flung areas. The in-laws torture them if their demands are not met and threaten them with divorce.”
The State Commission for Women (SWC) receives a number of complaints related to matrimonial disputes. Whatever the nature of complaints, the roots of all, says Hafiza Muzaffar, Secretary of SWC, lie in dowry.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, out of the 8,391 cases of dowry-related deaths in India in 2010, nine were reported in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2009 there were 12 dowry deaths in Kashmir. These are only the reported cases. There are no figures for those that go unreported.
Muzaffar’s experience has led her to believe that parents give dowry because they feel if they do not give anything, their daughter will not be respected in her in-laws’ place. It is this expectation which leads a girl and her parents to stretch their resources, making things difficult for themselves.
Muzaffar says that this is an alarming situation, as the prevalence of dowry is rising every day. “Islam prohibits dowry. Despite Kashmir being a Muslim-dominated state, we give [dowry] because of the fear that our daughters will not be treated well. It is a fear psychosis, and definitely, she is not being treated well.”
Dowry is prohibited, and laws have been enacted to punish the guilty. Under the Jammu and Kashmir Dowry Restraint Act (India), a person can be booked and punished for taking or giving dowry. But the situation on the ground tells a different story.
“The legislation is there but it isn’t implemented. People are giving dowry, no one is stopping them,” says Muzaffar.
According to Muzaffar, women are afraid to go to a court of law as there is a stigma attached to it. “Even educated and independent women avoid the court. They think, ‘what will people say?’ and feel too shy to get help.”
Ghulam Nabi Bhat, a resident of Pulwama, married off his daughter some years back with fanfare, but had no idea of what was following. “After marriage, her in-laws started demanding a car, a plot of land, and other things,” says Bhat.
Bhat now wants divorce for his daughter, who is staying with her parents, but the in-laws are refusing to return the dowry. He has filed a case with the Women’s Commission, where he is pleading for a quick disposal of the dispute.
“We even got a Shariat court recommendation that women are entitled to the entire dowry, but they are not relenting,” says Bhat.
Islam provides for mandatory Mehr, which is the amount of dowry money paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage, or nikah. This amount belongs to the bride and she can do whatever she wants with it. Moreover, any gifts from the groom’s side are considered the personal property of the bride.
Shakira Yousuf, a lecturer, believes religious awareness on the issue, as Islam prohibits dowry, is required to fight the menace, along with strict implementation of laws.
The situation on the ground appears bleak - men do not want to displease their parents while women do not want to create problems for theirs. But the situation will not change unless the men and women who are the actual participants in a marriage initiate a change. Things will only look up when the groom says no to accepting dowry and the bride declines to give one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nusrat Ara is a freelance journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir who is interested in covering issues that have gone underreported in the media. She holds a postgraduate degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir and is a contributor to the Women International News Gathering Service (Canada), as well as Kashmir Newz, a Srinagar-based online news content provider. She also reports for The Press Institute and has also worked with various local English dailies in Srinagar. In 2008 Nusrat was awarded a Sanjay Ghose Media Fellowship.