DESPITE the Prophet's (PBUH) efforts to elevate women to the point where they, like men, acquired legal and social rights, in South Asia the birth of a daughter remains something to mourn or, at best, to tolerate with perseverance.
Among other reasons for the low value given to daughters is the feeling that she will not be able to contribute anything to the family, and will only put a burden on finances because of the age-old custom of dowry, which will be given to her at the time of her marriage.
The giving of dowry is often equated with a religious ritual, some even attributing it to the Sunnah. In the books of the fiqh, where such detail is found about other matters, there is no mention of any such concept regarding a bride. The Arabic word 'tajheez', means to prepare someone for a journey, etc. The goods prepared are called 'jahazun'. From this the Urdu word 'jahez' has been coined.
In cultures where the daughter did not have the right to inherit property, she was given something at the time of her marriage as compensation. In India, the tradition of kanniya daan existed in which they tried to make up a little for the fact that the girl was not going to inherit any property. Also, because of the daughter's weak legal position, the bride's family gave expensive gifts to the groom's family but received nothing in return. In some cases, the custom of demanding jahez developed with extreme cases demanding expensive items at the time of the wedding or threatening to call the ceremony off.
Muslims in India, most of them being converts, retained the tradition and gave it the Arabised name 'jahez'. People try to outdo one another in givingdowry to their daughters, so much so that the custom has taken root of displaying the goods for public viewing. It is considered a good deed to help in the procurement of jahez for poor girls, who would not be able to get married otherwise.
It has also become a compulsion for the girls' families to spendbeyond their means on wedding expenses, so that a father who has several daughters is constantly in debt and the family leads a miserable life because of it. Sometimes, a family has to dispose of valuable property simply to take care of the wedding expenses.
In the case of the example of the Prophet's daughter, Fatima, we learn that Ali came to the Prophet and expressed his wish to marry her. The Prophet asked him if he possessed anything to offer as mehr. He replied that he had a horse and a saddle. The Prophet advised him to keep the horse and to sell the saddle. So he went and sold the saddle for 480 dirhams to Usman and put all the money in front of the Prophet. The Prophet prayed for the well-being of Usman for paying a good price and at the same time gifting the saddle back to Ali. The Prophet then sent for some perfumes and gave the rest of the money for wedding preparations.
The necessary items of daily use found on record to have been prepared for this wedding were a cot or woven bed, two pillows made of leather, two striped bed sheets, one quilt, two amulets, one goat-skin for carrying water, two pots for water, one hand-grinding mill, one cup and one prayer mat.
Whatever the list of items, it is confirmed without any shadow of doubt that these items were selected and prepared by the Prophet's family, but the cost was borne by the groom. Ayesha, along with other women, cleaned the house in which Fatima was to move in; they prepared the floor by layering it with fresh clay, made the bedding, filled the pillows with a special grass and made wooden hangers for clothes.
The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said that the best nikah is one in which the least amount has been spent. Those who can afford to give jahez should be the ones to oppose it and explain to the family of the groom that jahez is not an Islamic tradition. If, in every wedding, the families tried to do a little less than what their friends and relatives did, these wasteful customs could be contained to eventually die out.