YET another effort has been made, by an honourable judge of the Lahore High Court, to somehow address the scourge of dowry in Pakistani society. Hearing the case of a divorced woman who asked for a fair evaluation of the dowry she had brought to her then husband’s home the justice observed that the nikahnama should have a column listing all that is given as dowry at the time a couple tie the knot.
The judge “directed the Punjab government to introduce a new legislation to incorporate dowry items in nikahnama (marriage certificate) so the miseries of women litigants seeking recovery of their dowry after marital break-up can be reduced...”.
The judge said “the brides should also be educated and well informed about negative impacts of dowry and should be taught that they can lead a better life with more independence and happiness”. He advised “women to make bold moves towards exposing families demanding dowry using the help of the legal system”. He said the “legal system should be made more accommodative to make the brides and their family members comfortable”.
The court asked the law secretary to take the required course to have this legislation in place “at the earliest” which would shift the focus to the Punjab Assembly. The assembly must now deliberate long and hard, but a judge speaking with so much urgency on the topic of dowry is so much like old times when jahez was considered to be a pressing problem requiring immediate attention. The direction given speaks of the difficulties anyone asked to come up with a solution related to matters of dowry is immediately confronted with.
Society has accepted dowry as a necessary tradition that cannot be discontinued.
The dowry issue brings out so many contrasting sides to people and their preferences in life. Dowry is something to be ashamed of even as it is a source of pride, the kind that is flaunted at the most triumphant moment. The same set of people would be hiding it one moment in front of one particular group and not too long afterwards they might be found showing it off in front of another audience.
Given that the utmost secrecy is often maintained in the shifting of dower items to the home of the blessed ‘shurfas’ at the time of marriage it is difficult to see that there would be any volunteers filling in the new jahez column in the nikahnama. There will have to be some law forcing them to do so, which brings us back to the sad discussion about how existing laws aimed at curbing the practice are routinely flouted. The media was only allowed to flash images of the most expensive and ostentatious wedding in Punjab recently since the organisers of the event were sure they would get away with it.
Most shockingly, in so many instances the exercise to estimate the worth of dowry is undertaken only after signs of estrangement between the couple come to the surface. The Lahore High Court case mentioned here took up the plea of a woman who refused to accept a lower court’s evaluation of the riches she had brought for her husband’s pleasure over and above her own transfer to his house. She pleaded that the price tag put on the jahez items by the lower court was much smaller than the amount she claimed at the dissolution of her marriage.
I know this must have left a bad taste in the mouth of many sensitive souls but this was not at all an unusual occurrence. Money affairs feature as prominently at the end of a marriage as they do at its start. Quiet, uncomplicated settlements elude many and resorting to the courts for a resolution is routine.
There are laws that discourage the practice of giving and receiving dowry, but it is a problem that has long since been placed in a category which defies all attempts at reform. The entries in this category are best left unattended, at a comfortable distance from debate lest they turn into a source of collective pain and shame. There’s a sense of resignation with which society has accepted dowry as a necessary tradition that cannot be discontinued.
The moments when Pakistanis are shaken out of their apathy by a report on the ‘curse’ of jahez are becoming less frequent. There are, of course, bits of news about a ‘bride’ being burnt over her inability to bring a dowry befitting the status and imagination of her in-laws. There are so many incidents of husbands and in-laws losing their cool at some point and satisfying their anger by snuffing out a fragile, defenceless life.
The newspapers are full of stories of torture and killing on account of an insufficient dowry. Quite often, the emphasis of those who highlight these ugly situations is on the violence it all culminates in. There are calls for protecting women against domestic violence. There are demands for — and some practical work has been done on this — ensuring proper treatment for victims of violence carried out because of the size of the dowry. There are not too many words spoken in anger against the scourge of dowry itself. It is certainly not like the past when the subject would be spoken about with so much passion and conviction.
There are no ready solutions to this question short of a miraculous overnight transformation where all people, without exception, suddenly discover the true meaning of dignity. The belief — there has to be such a belief to sustain civilisation — however, is that answers will come once the right amount of pressure has been created by a vibrant forward-looking debate by those who care. The Lahore High Court judge asking for the introduction of a new column in the nikahnama has done his bit by reigniting a dead debate. It is now for others to join in and take up a challenge that all of us have been too afraid to face.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2017