NOWSHERA, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)--At a mass wedding ceremony organized to protest the widespread custom of giving dowry here, Suttan Zeb sat quietly amongst the other grooms gleefully soaking up the atmosphere.
More than 4,000 people gathered this past Saturday to witness the marriages of 201 couplesfrom Pakistan's impoverished Northwest Frontier Province where those unable to afford thesocially dictated costs of marriage often remain single for life.
"This is a day I never thought would come," said the 24-year-old who sported a garland of flowers decorated with brightly colored paper and black kohl around his unseeing eyes.
Blind from birth, Zeb languished in bachelorhood. His condition meant no family of any real standing would choose him as a son-in-law thus clinching a sizable dowry, nor did he have anything to offer even girls from poor families as incentives. Four months ago, the announcement of the upcoming ceremony changed Zeb's life after his second cousin agreed to become his bride.
"Everything has changed now," he said of his previous plans to continue working on the family lands growing wheat and corn. "We'll have children, and maybe I will try to open up a small store, something I can build on in the future."
In a separate tent, the expectant brides sat awaiting their mates. Only about half wore the traditional gold-embroidered red wedding dresses that can cost as much as thousands of dollars.
"I still can't believe this is happening," said 25-year old Shireen, the daughter of a mosque sweeper wearing a simple hand-embroidered white long tunic with baggy pants underneath, the most common mode of dress in Pakistan. While the celebrants were clearly elated over the opportunity to establish their own homes, it remains uncertain whether this new approach will improve the situation for women here. Brides have been beaten, abused and even murdered for not delivering a dowry deemed sufficient by in-laws, however, the fate of these brides without dowries remains to be seen.
"I had already accepted that I would grow old living off the generosity of my brothers." Like many of the women at the ceremony, Shireen was not married sooner because her parents could not find a family willing to take on another mouth to feed.
"Sure I am a little bit nervous about leaving my home, but now I can fulfill my rightful place as a mother and a wife," Shireen said.
Dowry Tradition Gains in Popularity
Across the region, women are undereducated and discouraged from working outside the home. They are considered a liability to their parents, who work hard to arrange a mate for them.
The U.N.-sponsored Human Development Report indicates that South Asian women make up 21 percent of the world's female population, yet constitute 44 percent of the world's illiterate females. Nepal has the lowest female literacy rate in the world at 13 percent.
In Pakistan, only 6 percent of women work outside the home or family lands. When women do work outside the home, they are most commonly teachers and nurses earning about $90 a month. Among the urban poor, women also work as cooks, masi (cleaning ladies) and babysitters for $45 to $80 per month. Many women also work as virtual slaves at brick kilns, earning about $1 per day.
To alleviate what's considered an impending burden on the new in-laws, brides' families give dowries of money, household goods, jewelry or land to the groom's family. While the custom dates back to Greco-Roman times, it has gained popularity across South Asia in the last 20 years as modernization and desperation have combined to increase dowry demands to disastrous levels. The costs vary from land and farm animals to furniture, cars and tens of thousands of dollars.
Bride wealth, known as kaikuli, has sanction under Islamic law and was often viewed as a pre-mortem inheritance from a father to his daughter. In Pakistan, a woman is entitled to one-eighth her parental property as dowry, with the woman retaining rights over her possessions. Grooms were encouraged under Islamic law to give wives generous mehr, a cash gift at the time of marriage meant to secure the bride's future. Since the end of the 1970s, the amount of mehr has decreased while the modern version of dowry--over which the bride rarely retains any control--has gained ground on kaikuli.
"It has largely degenerated into a loathsome practice," Nauzat Amir, an Islamabad-based political activist of the Pakistan Muslim League party said. "Now poor families work very hard to gain from marrying off their sons, while the rich compete with each other to outdo the lavishness of other's dowries."
Religious Party Promotes Mass Wedding
In a move that shocked many here, Pakistan's largest religious party the Jamaat-e-Islami organized Saturday's mass wedding. It is the main party in a six-party religious alliance that swept to power in October 2002 here and in the neighboring province Balochistan elections, raising fears of the rise of Taliban-like administration in those areas.
Besides footing the bill for the day's activities, which included a lavish luncheon buffet, the party gave every couple a water cooler, set of bed sheets and a dinner service for six. Couples also received a wedding chest containing sets of unstitched clothing, toothbrushes, toothpaste, a Koran, a prayer mat and a burka--the all encompassing garment made infamous by the Taliban. The territory's provincial government provided each newlywed couple with 10,000 rupees, or about $175.
While it might not seem like much, in a country where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day, the presents constituted a watershed for the lucky couples.
"Society must come together to promote easing the process of marriage and erasing alien customs that have entered our society," said party leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad. "It is not in the spirit of Islam to deny marriage to anyone due to monetary concerns."
Activist Raise Issue of Dowry Violence
As in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, the issue of dowry in Pakistan and the violence that often accompanies it has become one of major concern to women's rights activists.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the issue of dowries in neighbouring India, where observers recorded 23,000 dowry-related deaths between 1994 and 1998. There are no such studies about the impact of dowry violence in Pakistan.
In the last 18 years, Shahnaz Bukhari, founder of the Islamabad-based Progressive Women's Association has handled 17,000 cases on behalf of women from dowry-related violence to rapes, murders and stove burnings (Women's eNews has named Bakhari one of its 21 Leaders for the 21st Century-2004).
"A substantial amount of these cases concern a lack of dowry or fights over terms and conditions," says the seasoned women's rights campaigner. "In almost all cases, once the dowry enters the husband's family's house, it is not possible for the woman to recover it."
In the 1970s, alarmed by increasingly irrational demands and growing violence, India and Pakistan attempted to curb the trend by making it illegal. In 1976, a new law restricted the amount of permissible dowry, bridal gifts and marriage expenditure to 50,000 rupees (about $875). As with India, lax implementation and social acceptance have meant existing laws have done little to stem the practice.
With the customs so firmly engrained in Pakistani society, Bukhari believes there is little chance of wiping out the practice. Instead, she argues "the government should legislate a provision to include the dowry items on the marriage certificate providing documentary proof for the woman in case of argument, separation, or divorce."
"One just feels so ashamed to see what was once an act of love and affection turn into a nightmare for parents and their daughters," Bukhari added.
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.
For more information:
Janmanch.org: The People's Forum--
"Dowry: a South Asian Malady":
Asia Times Online--
"Beware of Brides Bearing Gifts":