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On dowry

On dowry

By Mina Malik-Hussain

I love good advertising, and an Indian campaign to educate girls has developed a series of stunning and clever videos about dowry. The campaign is called ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Parhao’: save a daughter, educate a daughter. The videos show newlywed girls in their new homes, being taunted or pressurised. In one video, the mothe-in-law makes it clear that since they are feeding her, the bride’s parents owe them, and so should provide a refrigerator. In the second, a father-in-law tells his daughter-in-law that she can’t go to the bazaar with her husband on the scooter she brought to the house. In both instances, the girls fight back: because they paid the price, or the dowry, they own their husbands. After all, you only pay installments on objects, so why should a son be any different? The videos are brilliant, and probably pretty shocking to most. The brides don’t raise their voice, they aren’t rude. But they are no-nonsense and intelligent and, most importantly, unafraid.

What I like best about the videos is that they turn the whole idea of dowry onto its head. Dowry is commonly seen as a degrading gesture, an offering of gratitude by the bride’s parents to the groom’s as a way of thanking them for the great honour of taking this girl off their hands. More often than not, dowry isn’t just seen as such, it really is so. The family of the groom use dowry as a way to establish their dominion over the bride’s family, and a means to elevate their social and economic prestige. Conversely, the quality and quantity of a dowry also serves as an indicator of the bride’s status in her new family. A lavish, expensive dowry will give the bride muscle. Many times parents just want to be able to help their daughter have the lifestyle she is accustomed to. Whatever the reason, no bride has ever been married without a dowry, however big or small, and more often than not, they are an enormous source of stress and social status: ergo, perpetually problematic. A poor or small dowry means you are a terrible parent and your daughter’s value plummets; the only way to restore it usually being the production of several sons in rapid succession.

In many households one dowry isn’t enough either. Like the girl in one of the video points out to her mother in law, her parents just gave them a sewing machine. Is a fridge necessary too? Are they paying installments on their daughter? The mother in law is surprised: of course they are. Apart from the astonishing and bleakly common misogyny being practiced by a woman on another woman, the video is so realistically telling. That is the function of a dowry: the parents of a girl child must keep her in laws happy at all cost, otherwise their daughter will be out of favour. And instead of strengthening her position in her new home, it seems to have the opposite effect. The groom’s family sees it as their right to take these items. And that is where the power of these videos lies. Boom! Dowry becomes the language of barter, and instead of a bride being accepted in lieu of cash and goods, the cash and goods are being traded for a son and husband. Brilliant!

Brilliant, and more serious than one thinks. There aren’t many statistics on it for Pakistan, but in India female foeticide is, according to an article in the Guardian, directly linked to dowry. The imminent burden of having to provide one to a daughter is so daunting that many parents would rather kill a female baby in-utero than have to shoulder the pressure of a dowry. Think of that for one minute. It’s no different here—the attitude to female children is identical, one just doesn’t have enough statistics to support the claim. One has personally witnessed the complete silence in ultrasound clinics when the next door woman, accompanied by her mother-in-law, is told the baby is a girl. No congratulations, not even a weak “girls are God’s blessing”. Just a heavy, accusing silence.

This is why it does all of us a power of good to have videos like these ones. If an exchange is being made, then let it be one that helps our girls. If a trade is happening, let it not be one of self-respect for a life made legitimate by marriage. Let’s give our girls that, instead of cars and fridges and sofa sets. Let’s give them our support—let’s never tell them that once they’re married, they can never come back home. That they are a consolation prize, that to earn value they will be the ones looking after us when we’re old. Let’s never let them feel that they’re only as good as the jewelry and clothes and whether there were prawns at the wedding reception. That the money we spend on them, for food and clothing and their education, is all money well-spent because they deserve to make something wonderful of their lives. Because they are wonderful, and let’s never let anyone tell them otherwise.

The Nation

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