PAKISTAN: Apathy of the state and the civil society towards a violence called Dowry

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission on Women’s International Day

Dowry system and related violence is a product of patriarchy that in turn needs to be understood, unloaded and unpacked through gender lens. If there is a formula for defining gender it should be sexes + class +ethnicity.  This implies that gender is not limited to men and women and it is not the battle of sexes.

However, the ruling and intellectual   elites of Pakistan   deliberately exclude class and ethnicity on any gender related discourse and interventions. Therefore, in spite of detectable clatter and clamour for gender issues with a special focus on sexual and gender based violence and violence against women dowry related issues and abuses continue to be neglected, ridiculed or reduced as the point of concern for very poor and deprived ones and domestic servants.

The widely accepted wisdom and perception is  that Dowry is a benign and beautiful tradition. However, the fetid truth is otherwise.  Dowry system assigns a low or no status to a girl   right from   the pre natal stage.

Men, when, treat women as lesser beings  may not be continually cognizant of their actions or even if they are they may not be inevitably convinced that it is unfair, inequality, human right violation because cultures , traditions, lingo & media  echo patriarchy and subsequently characterize and buttress stereotypes (typically).

In 1994 when I diagnosed myself as a victim of dowry related violence I refused to stay in an abusive marriage, fought for a divorce that I had finally (through giving up my rights to alimony & maintenance of child) and raised my girl as a single and stigmatized woman only through the strength endowed by Divine and some practical support offered in early years by my parents and young siblings.

Since then I am working without the push of the class and pull of the donors’ generous funding and elitist contacts as a powerless and passion driven development   practitioner and activist with a special focus on social attitudes & behaviours and a legislation against dowry-the most decent form of dacoity- the most provocative challenge to the masculinity of the so called ghairatmand (honorable) Pakistani mard (men) – white collar crime-dowry.

Do I need to re re  re re …..remind the donors’ communities, the vibrant civil society and free and fair media of Pakistan besides the democratic government what I have been pointing out since 2000 that Obligatory Jahez takes a heavy toll on the family of dulhan – the bride.

Dowry is a multi-faceted deep-rooted gender issue with social, economic and health consequences. In spite of a consensus on disliking the practice, only a few have the courage to disown it.

According to renowned Indian writer Shri Sharma the “evolution” of dowry is originally from a gift creating expectation leading to demands and greed. A large dowry can be an important attribute of status to both men and women. Dowry, which is popularly considered as a Hindu custom, has visibly migrated, escalated and embraced in all the areas of the present day Pakistan. It has become an active tradition, norm and religious practice for those who believe that there is an absence of such custom and tradition in their faith. The implication of this convenient forgetfulness is inattentiveness to dowry-related violence.

There are certain other factors that ensure the continuity of the practice of Dowry such as:

  • It is considered an incentive to lure a more suitable match
  • It is submission to the demand of a perceived suitable match
  • It is used as an excuse for denial of inheritance to women (the expenses on dowry and wedding are unilaterally decided by the men folk of the family as transfer of inheritance by other means)
  • It is considered a good support mechanism to help the new couple so that they have a convenient start in practical life
  • It has become a socially forced fait accompli that is followed and executed ‘with a smile’ notwithstanding, how painful it could be to the family.

Most of the people (husband, in laws & girls’ families) get away with torturing, abusing and practicing violence of different forms over dowry because:

  • Society & state do not recognize it as a malady, abuse & unfairness. It is sanctioned in the name of tradition, custom& culture.
  • There is no law as in Pakistan to see dowry demand and embedded violence as cognizable offence. Dowry ( Jahez or daan)  is different from bridal gifts and should be seen and treated differently. Thus, the two should be clearly separated in Restriction Act of 1976 because when a gift becomes a demand, it becomes an offence and a form of violence.
  • When there is law there is no rule of law (remember judiciary & police too are patriarchal, conventional, dogmatic &. Conformist. This leads to discrimination & biases against weakest in the society hence for women& girls the first to be harmed and last to be heard the access to justice is nothing but a farfetched dream.
  • It  is usually, too difficult for the sufferer/victim because of her ignorance/ illiteracy/legal illiteracy/ mobility issue/ financial constraints/conditioning by culture leading to lack of nerve to stand up for her rights/threats of consequences like acid throwing/victim bashing/ abduction of children etc ( all factors and many more come into play in different combinations) therefore laws appear to be ineffective but it does not mean that there should be no law as the case load may be many a times more if there was no law. The need is to augment alertness& attentiveness regarding existing laws or absence of laws and enabling environment must be created by the govts. & civil society to enable a sufferer to speak up without being disgraced, discredited and dishonored.

Estimates of the percentage of women who experience domestic violence in Pakistan range from 70-90%. According to the reports of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the extreme form it took included driving a woman to suicide or engineering an accident through infamous “Stove burning” usually when the husband, often in collaboration with his side of the family, felt (or made to believe) that the dowry or other gifts he had expected from his in-laws were not forthcoming or/and he wanted to marry again or he expected an inheritance from the death of his wife.

During 1997, the Lahore press reported an average of more than four local cases of women being burnt weekly, three of the four fatally. Police follow -up to these cases was negligible, with only six suspects taken into custody out of 215 cases reported in Lahore newspapers during the year. In 1997, there was not a single conviction in a “stove-death” case in the country.

This is 2014.What have  singular efforts of FADAN (Fight Against Dowry Advocacy Network a product of my pioneering non funded project Fight Against Dowry) gained so far? I have been successful in producing a low budget 13-episode advocacy series for TV in 2002, some research based papers/reports ( only one report produced by a nonprofit that I cofounded –till to date the only national study- was partially funded by UNWomen then UNIFEM in 2009 and fell a victim to UN system’s bureaucracy –was finally released in 2012 with the fine editing (read elimination of certain shocking facts), some posters, youth assemblies , alternative law in 2002 way back in 2003 (that is buried under files) besides being heard in powerful usually elites dominant networks of non profits who at times willfully and at other reluctantly have started adding the word dowry-violence in the list of forms of violence against women and girls and that’s it.

It is noted with extreme sadness & shock (but not  with an iota of surprise)that all mainstream newspapers & other media (to the best of my knowledge) “Failed” & “FORGOT” to mention dowry violence while celebrating & reporting IWD related activities.

I must acknowledge though that EVAWG & IHI (Islamabad based national networks of HR & WR activists) did add the need for legislation against dowry and related violence in their final press release on my request.

As always strong surnames, donors’ heart favourite and well connected made headlines. At one end “media friends” accuse ‘NGOS & civil society reps.” of being donor driven but on the other end they somehow cannot give due space to non elite activists and passion driven NGOS who cannot afford events in 5 star hotels and exclusive elitist clubs.

My effort will remain on till my last breath. “You” have done so many “things” against me and leave no stone unturned but I am still alive & my dreams are unbruised.

However, I  dare to ask the state and Govt.of Pakistan , all legislators, powerful donor groups interested in development of a liberal society and elite feminists, activists and advocates of human rights , children ,youth and women rights that for how long:

  1. Pro women legislation would take   place only when powerful elites are championing that particular issue?
  2. Vulgar display of wealth would be tolerated in the name of dowry?
  3. “Stove deaths/kitchen deaths” of women usually newlywed would be considered as “accidental” and not dowry deaths?
  4. Dowry demand and lavish wedding would be endorsed in the name of culture and custom and not considered as cognizable crime and must to attend causality?
  5. Legislation against dowry and related violence would be delayed (does it impact the corporate interests?)?
  6. People of Pakistan (in a country of nearly 200 M more than 50% are below poverty line) would continue to wait for changing social attitudes instead of proactive legislative action?
  7. The state and the civil society would continue to disbelieve & disregard that a society without justice is a society misruled; therefore, the law about dowry prohibition and austerity in weddings is a must. It must touch all three forms of justice; i.e. corrective justice, distributive justice and justice in the social norms and practices of society?

About the Author: Dr.Rakhshinda Perveen (a Pakistan based survivor, activist, media practitioner & gender expert)-She tweets at survivorwins

She can be reached at;

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-017-2014
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Child rights, Environmental protection, Judicial system, Right to health, Rule of law, Violence against women, Women's rights,