Dowry: A Hushed But Existing Relic

[Dowry or jahaiz is the money, goods, or estate that a wife brings for her husband in a marriage]

Once in a blue moon, people march against dowry-related violence. The slogan “jahaiz ek laanat hai” gets chanted by every individual. But nothing actually happens against it and people tend to go silent. The practice resumes like every other cultural norm. Based on a personally conducted small-scale survey, people seem to have accepted that the practice will stay. They seem to have accepted that the custom is deeply embedded in our culture and that even if the law tries to outlaw it, it will have no effect.

The West Pakistan Dowry (Prohibition of Display) Act 1967 was the first legislation to tackle the issue of dowry. It was an apathetic attempt. The Act placed a restriction on displaying or exhibiting dowry and confirmed that all the gifts received by a bride were solely her property. However, it did not address the real issue regarding the troublesome nature of dowry: exhibition was not the problem but the very act of providing dowry upon the groom’s demand was. For a breach of restrictions, the Act stipulated that the offender be penalized with a fine of PKR 1000 fine and/or imprisonment.

Subsequently, the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976 was enacted to reconsider the consequences of dowry. It described dowry in the following manner:

“…any property given before, at or after the marriage either directly or indirectly, to the bride by her parents in connection with the marriage but it does not include property which the bride may inherit under the laws of inheritance and succession applicable to her.

Property in this context means “property, both movable and immovable, and includes any valuable security as defined in the Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860)”.

The Act prevented the dowry property which was to be “given before or after six months of nikah” from exceeding the price of PKR 5000. It reversed the 1967 decision of prohibiting the exhibition of dowry by making it mandatory to “display all items of dowry”. If a person failed to comply with the provision, the Act stipulated imprisonment and/or a fine of no more than PKR 10,000. Dowry articles were to be seized by the federal government and allotted to underprivileged families who could not afford dowry.

The rest became history. To date, there has been no federal legislation on the matter despite dowry being an absolute nuisance. This makes sense to some extent. After the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, matters regulating marriages fell under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. To no one’s surprise, the reforms or Bills tabled so far outnumber the actual amendments restricting or banning dowry.

The first province to respond to the 1976 Act was Balochistan. The concerned provincial government passed the Balochistan Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Rules 1981 as a development to the 1976 Act. The Rules provide guidelines as to how confiscated dowry articles must be utilized if they exceed the aggregate amount stated in the law. The Rules require a specific list of items to be made, as provided by the Family Courts, and stipulate that the listed articles must be submitted to the jahez khana. Balochistan has not legislated any further on the subject or its atrocities ever since. The customary practice of bijjar is sometimes used a replacement for dowry, whereby tribes exchange gifts with each other during a marriage ceremony (as many of them condemn the practice of dowry). Bijjar, however, is a cultural practice recognized by a few locals only.

In 2016, a Private Member’s Bill, namely the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) (Amendment) Act, was laid down in the National Assembly to make amendments to the 1976 Act. The Bill was proposed as an attempt to ban the demand of dowry and make it punishable with imprisonment of 6 months and/or fine of no more than PKR 10,000. The Bill advocated for an increase in wedding expenses from PKR 5000 to 50,000 for weddings in urban areas and PKR 20,000 for weddings in rural areas. It specified that a “complete list of dowry in the nikah duly signed by the witnesses of nikah and the nikah khwan” must be incorporated to curtail dowry-related disputes in times of divorce. The Bill was never passed.

Punjab has stayed silent on the matter. A provincial statute, the Punjab Marriage Functions Act 2016, prohibits the display of dowry but does not place any restrictions on dowry itself. In 2019, Ms Uzma Bukhari of the PML-N party tabled a resolution to ban the “menace” altogether but the matter did not get formally legislated upon.

The former Chief Minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, also resisted a complete ban, reasoning that a smooth implementation was neither practical nor possible. He observed the same attitude when the Women Development Department advanced the Sindh Dowry Act in 2017.

Perhaps the most appealing digital protest of the issue was carried out by UN Women Pakistan. At the end of 2018, UN Women Pakistan initiated a campaign using the hashtag #stopjahaizkhori or “jahaiz khori band kero”. Many Pakistani celebrities showed their support and uploaded pictures of their hands with the hashtag written in henna as a symbolic gesture. Dowry was, and still is, termed as a “social evil” often leading to “violence” against women. As per UN Women’s website, the “campaign earned nearly 495 million impressions” but also faced backlash from the promoters of dowry.

The campaign was an eye-opener. Soon after, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa passed legislation completely barring the exchange of dowry. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Marriage Functions (Prohibition of Ostentatious Displays and Wasteful Expenses) Act 2018 makes the claiming of dowry a punishable offence, and provides that, “….anyone from bridegroom family or anyone on their behalf asking or forcing bride’s family [sic] for dowry amount or articles shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two months and fine not less than three hundred thousand rupees or both.” The statute is lauded for being the first to take prohibitory measures which can prevent the danger often faced by families who are not able to afford dowry or who refuse to accept the practice. However, no case has been reported on the matter, making it impossible to assume if the practice has been completely abandoned.

The majority of the successful suits filed for dowry in Punjab relate to its recovery post-dissolution of marriage. In such cases, a husband typically argues for the 1976 restriction of keeping dowry amount below PKR 5000 to be applicable in order to avoid returning anything. A gendered perspective of the law becomes evidently necessary here. The courts have nevertheless granted many women the right to recover dowry articles, regardless of the amount, as the wife is supposed to be the sole proprietor of whatever she receives in a marriage.

In Masud Sarwar v. Farah Deeba, 1988 CLC 1546, the provision regarding the limit of PKR 5000 was referred to as “restrictive law” instead of “prohibitory law”. In Tanveer Salamat v. Additional District Judge, 2019 YLR 1862, the courts held that an amount as high as an estimated 1 lac, could also be retained despite the restrictive measure of PKR 5000, as the rule did not prohibit other dowry articles stipulated above the amount.

Courts in Balochistan have almost always granted the wife the right to retain dowry. Recently, in Ali Akbar v. Mst Samina, 2020 YLR 332, the court ruled in favor of the wife and acknowledged that it was not possible for her to keep receipts of all articles purchased as mentioned on the dowry list. Therefore, the onus was on the husband to prove if no dowry had been given. In Aziz-ur-Rehman v. Mst Bibi Jameela, 2020 CLC 380, the court held that “solitary statements” by the wife were enough to prove the existence or granting of dowry.

The survey mentioned earlier has also reflected that citizens tend to cling to patriarchal beliefs in trying to justify that the practice of dowry caters to women’s happiness, promises them a secure home, helps her after the marriage has ended, is a gesture of love and affection and should be seen in the same way, stops the in-laws from belittling a newly-wed girl for her parents’ lack of finances, or can be helpful if the woman is rich and the husband is not in the best of circumstances to provide for the family. For these reasons, people have been more comfortable with the idea of restricting dowry and not banning it altogether. It is submitted that the families should consider mutuality instead; if a bride brings something to the table, the groom should too.

87% of the participants of the survey have also never heard of anyone actually being penalized under any of the dowry laws, which comes as no surprise given the minimal effort made to control the practice of dowry.

A research by Gallup Pakistan in 2014 showed that 69% of the population thought it was impossible for a girl to get married without dowry. The same question was asked by the organization in 2017 and the percentage had reduced to 56%. The 2014 survey also revealed that only 15% resisted to take or give dowry, with the rest either fully supporting the idea or saying that they would give and take “to some extent”. The percentage rose by 3% in 2016. No research has been conducted on this topic since 2018 which reflects how dowry remains one of the most neglected wrongs in our society.

A major segment of the society treats the concept of marriage akin to a business transaction that has no reliable justification other than the fact that it is a traditional concept prevailing since historical times. This segment also believes that a ban on dowry is the only reliable option for mitigating the brutality it entails. It believes that dowry is coercive and no exceptions can be entertained to tolerate it.

Dowry is still not criminalized in many of the countries it is practised in, even though extensive efforts have been made to curtail it. One may think that dowry is completely a South Asian concept only practised in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, etc, however, that is not the case.

Australia strictly condemns dowry-related violence, which has been rampant within the country’s Hindu and Sikh communities. The phone number 1800 737 732 or 1800 RESPECT and the website are the official platforms that cater to dowry-related abuse and forceful demands for dowry from family members. Frontrunners of anti-dowry campaigns have also advocated for banning it altogether.

In Nepal, except for the Madhesi tribe and Terai belt, the exchange of dowry has significantly decreased following a ban on it through the Social Customs and Practices Act which has made it a criminal offence.

New Zealand, in its Family Violence Act 2018 (NZ), includes the concept of dowry-related violence as a legitimate form of violence in the following words:

Violence against a person may be dowry-related violence (that is, violence that arises solely or in part from concerns about whether, how, or how much any gifts, goods, money, other property, or other benefits are— (a) given to or for a party to a marriage or proposed marriage; and (b) received by or for the other party to the marriage or proposed.”

The tradition in Pakistan has noticed a very slight decline overall. Whether that is due to legislation (with the main statute still being decades old), or whether it is because of a shift in familial mindsets, is still questionable. The fact remains that it is still practised, and it is not just the practice itself that makes it a burden, rather how it gets exploited. A woman’s refusal to present suitable dowry articles can result in her being rejected, defamed or even killed. Any efforts that are actually made to eradicate dowry get subsided if the custom lingers on. The government’s reluctance to accept any of the resolutions proposed also makes the matter increasingly troublesome.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which she might be associated.

See also: Recovery of Dowry According to Islam and Pakistani Law

Arwa Arshad

Author: Arwa Arshad

The writer hails from Kuwait and is a law student of the University of London. She has keen interest in academic writing and research and aims to pursue a career in human rights and corporate law.