Ayeshas and the institution of dowry

Aysha

Nabila Hasan and Aiman Rizvi

A few days ago, a video went viral on social media of a young woman dressed in black from head to toe, sobbing with a smile on her face as she took her own life by jumping into a river. She was Ayesha Arif Khan, one of the million women who die, in one way or another due to greed for more wealth that lurks in the diseased hearts of human beings. Ayesha was not alone in her misery of maltreatment, suffering in silence at the hands of a merciless patriarchal society for simply being born as a woman in India.

The question that society chooses to raise over this issue is concerned about whether she was brave or a coward for making such a choice. The arguments that each side presents are appalling because each of them dehumanizes her in one way or another. The people in this society have terrible double standards when it comes to women.  ‘Yeh log kiya kahengey’ has resulted in many women holding their silence refusing to speak of their misery due to the fear of social stigma.

Out of all the evils that continue to pervade our society, one menace that never seems to get enough scorn to be done away with in totality is dowry. It is an old Indian tradition, something of a ‘bride price’, that must be given to the man from the woman’s family. The ancient religious scriptures speak of a man’s worth depending on his caste. The semantics may have changed today, but the base concept remains the same. We buy a man for marriage. The parents of women are lay bound with fetters of dowry which these days is better known as gifts, to help soothe monumental male egos. A gift is made with good intent, with a purpose to please. But these gifts only instil fear in the parents of women, who constantly worry that their daughter might be harassed and tortured for not bringing enough dowry. If experience has taught us anything it is that more only makes you want to have more.  For such people, even the world on a silver platter will never be enough.

Women suffering from fears of discrimination, exploitation, and subjugation is not something new, it is present since the 16th century, the difference is that today problems are displayed in a more sophisticated manner. Jane Austen rightly said, “[m]en have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” We blame lack of education as the root of patriarchy. Unfortunately, the reality is that it has nothing to do with the education system. A classic example of this is the IAS officer who wrote an essay against dowry during his examination but later went on to demand a dowry of 1 Crore from a prospective wife. A sophisticated form of dowry has evolved which is incumbent upon the qualification of a man. The higher the qualification, the more the demand for dowry from women.

We often read in newspapers that the systemic gender-based violation such as rape, acid attack on the face of women, and so on so forth. Redressal is hard to come by when the justice system chooses to drag cases of domestic violence for years and women are made to run pillar to post just to get some sense of solace. Some victims are decreed to marry their own rapist, as was the advice of the Chief justice of the Apex court of India. There has been an alarming increase in the number of dowry deaths in the past few years. In 2015, 7,634 cases were reported and from about 19 per day in 2001 to 21 per day in 2016 are reported cases of dowry death by NCB data. Out of the 100 cases of sexual violence that occur, 99 go unreported. Despite such abysmal numbers, dowry continues to be an institutionalised and integral part of Indian marriages.

Notwithstanding that, Ayesha’s suicide has fuelled the movement against dowry and broke all the records on social media. This begs the question that what is so peculiar about this particular suicide? To be fair, as we have discussed, the dowry phenomenon is popular across religious groups in India. So what has changed now? Muslims stand out like a stick in the mud when they so much as sneeze in their homes. Ayesha belongs to the Muslim community. She was clad in a burqa which is enough to garner the attention of Indian Media, hungry to pounce on the hapless Indian Muslim woman as they did during the Triple talaq movement. This aspect calls for double the marginality of Muslim women in India.

Tirelessly the narrative plays on her religious identity and her religion being the centre of the problem, but look again and you will find that religion has little to no role to play at all. For one, Islamic marriages mandate the giving of a ‘Mahr’ or a kind of consideration from the husband to the wife. Look at the Muslim communities around the world for a larger perspective. It’s always the Mahr and never dowry. So dowry does not figure at all in the Muslim community. This is a social issue and must be addressed as such. It is not incumbent upon the women to stop giving dowry but rather a responsibility of men to stop asking for dowry.

Just listening to the conversation between Ayesha and her parents is sure to move even the hardest of hearts. Theirs is a fight that many young women face every day. How heart-wrenching it is for a young girl to burden the weight of the world when she speaks of her father saying, “How long will you (father)  fight with your loved ones?” Her distraught mother says “if you do such an act then people will say that the fault was yours.” Even in her final moments, the pressure of society is dictating their thoughts and actions rather than their own wellbeing and safety.

The change has been slow but it is hopeful. People are now beginning to shun practises that deny women their agency, particularly the ‘Kanyadaan’. The law too penalises the evil of dowry through the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 albeit without singling out the men. Pop culture is jumping on to this bandwagon, where we see advertisements portraying strong female characters who refuse to bow down to social pressure even at their wedding! This has certainly helped change the dialogue at the grassroots level. What we need now is to be supportive of women facing such ordeals and make it a safe space for them to raise their voices against such injustice. We must proactively seek to openly challenge patriarchal traditions that make it difficult for women to live their lives in peace. Change starts from us, from you and me. 

Aiman Rizvi studied LLM in Islamic Law SOAS, University of London and Nabila Hasan is currently pursing LLM in European and International Human Rights Law, Saarland University, Germany.