by Dr. Aslam Abdullah
Three major types of dowry practices exist in the Muslim world.
1. The groom’s family demands money or hefty gifts from the bride’s family,
2. The bride’s family demands money from the groom or his family.
3. The groom offers a mutually agreed upon gift to the bride at the time of the wedding. This is known as mehr.
The first type is widely prevalent in India-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent. Parents who want to wed off their daughters must meet the demands of groom’s family; otherwise the chances of solemnizing the marriage might be jeopardized. Sometimes, the girl’s family voluntarily offers huge gifts and abundant money to a well qualified groom in order to knot the matrimonial ties for a better future for their daughters.
Obviously, in either case the groom is being paid to accept the bride as his wife. It is a kind of business deal where the groom is making promises to provide the girl a home and a safe heaven if he or his family is given adequate monetary rewards.
The second type is most common in Middle Eastern countries and Africa where the groom has to come up with specific money or other resources to be offered to bride’s family in order to finalize the marriage. In this transaction, the roles are reversed. Instead of the bride’s family, it is the groom who pays to marry the girl. This is also a kind of business deal where the skills of girls, to put it crudely, often determine her price.
The third type is also the most abused practice where the groom gives either a token present to the bride claiming it to be on the pattern of gift offered to Bibi Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad when the fourth Caliph Ali married her or a present in cash and kind that is rarely paid to the bride. Often, she is expected to forego it as quickly as she can.
There are exceptions but a great majority of people belonging to all spheres of life follow either of the above mentioned practices.
The irony is that most people condemn these practices, yet they never stop them. Girls are advised not to marry the person, who demands dowry, and boys are asked not to seek dowry, but a few are willing to change this age old custom of dowry. Even when such marriages take place, the girl is always told that she did not bring any or enough dowry with her.
Why is this happening? What are the practical ways to stop it?
It is happening in Muslim communities because of the unjust status that is accorded to women. No matter what we say from the pulpit and in our sermons, the fact is that women are not considered equal. They are often considered a stigma, a source of shame and most of the time strangers in their own homes because they have to leave their home one day. The sooner they are married off, the more relieved the family feels. How many a time you would hear the expression at the time of wedding: “Alhamdulillah, a great burden is over.”
If their marriage is delayed, they are often considered a bad omen for the family. Everyone in the family circles views them as a burden that has to be thrown off no matter what the cost is. They are viewed as such because of their financial dependence on their families.
It makes no difference whether they devote their entire life serving their parents, husband, husband’s family and their children; they are viewed dependents with little financial contribution to the family.
This culture of dowry would continue to exist unless women become financially independent and unless our families change their perspectives towards their daughters.
Our daughters are always our daughters no matter whom they marry. They are not a burden. They are not a stigma or shame. Even if they commit mistakes, they would remain our daughters and we would not abandon them for their wrongs.
They are the pillars of our family. We do not severe our relations with them once they wed off. Their welfare and well being is as much our concern as it is the concern of their husbands. They are part of us and they can never be separated from us. It makes no difference whether they are married at a younger or older age or not married at all. They should never be viewed as burden on the family.
Yes, every woman desires to have a home of her own where she can actualize all her dreams, where she can create a space of respect and dignity for her and her children, where she can prove to herself that she is a contributor to the human growth and progress, and where she feels autonomous and independent. Often to fulfill this dream, she goes miles. She compromises. She accepts abuse, humiliation and the sufferings at the hands of her husband or husband’s family etc.
From the perspective of a dignified existence she should not suffer all these pains. Every woman has an independent personality that must never be compromised even if it means breaking off relations with her husband. But she is forced to compromise because she knows that her parents view her as a burden and her siblings would not accept her back as a divorcee.
Her dignity and independence can be preserved only when she is financially independent. Once she can sustain herself financially and make contributions in terms of money, she would be viewed as an asset. Those who view her as a burden would be forced to change their view towards her and those who demand dowry for her hand would think twice before thinking about it.
This is the only practical way. Sermons have not worked. The implementation of legal safeguard to women also depends on the will of a largely male dominated society. One of the biggest obstacles in the financial independence for women comes from the religious clergy that does not want woman to be educated in sciences other than the one they specify for women such as sewing, cooking or home sciences. They are so opposed to women’s advancement that in some societies their demand to drive automobiles is viewed as a threat to the oneness of God.
Even if girls get educated despite the opposition by the clergy, they are not allowed to work along with men as in their views this would increase immodesty in the society.
Does the Quran really consider marriage an institution to serve men only? Does the Quran promote dowry? Does the Quran define mehr as a price for girls? Does the Quran view daughters as burden? Does the Quran prohibit women from working or running their own businesses? Everyone would say no to these questions. Yet few would demonstrate practically that they are willing to accept the Quranic perspectives.
The Quran does not view marriage as a business transaction. It defines marriage a contractual relationship between two equals to create peace on the basis of love, compassion and mercy. It does not say that it is only the mother who is responsible for the upbringing of children. On the contrary it places the responsibility upon both parents to ensure that household responsibilities are shared. The Quran views mehr as a gift to the bride as a goodwill gesture.
The Quran does not view daughters as burden. It views them as strong pillars of the family. The prophet is reported to have said that anyone who raises daughters well with full responsibility is guaranteed paradise. If the paradise lies under the feet of mother, it also is secured through raising daughters. Their presence is a source of mercy to families.
The Quran does not prohibit women from working or running their own businesses. Sura Ahzab defines the principle of gender equality in explaining the roles of men and women. The involvement of women in public life during the time of the Prophet is a testimony of the Quranic principles.
In fact, for reasons best known to a male chauvinistic clergy, the divine message about women has been twisted to serve the male interests. Dowry is a manifestation of that corruption of the divine guidance.
So, the menace of dowry can be tackled effectively when we bring about a change in our attitude towards women and our daughters, when we do not create obstacles in their way of progress and when we give them the same freedom we seek for ourselves and when we ensure that they get the best possible education in all spheres of life.
When they will be seen as equal and dignified, no one would dare demand dowry for marrying them, no one would offer money to their parents to marry them and no one would play with the practice of gift at the time of wedding.
Unless and until that happens our daughters would continue to suffer from the daily humiliation at the hands of a society that gives priority to customs than to reason or to the divine guidance. They would be treated like a commodity, not different than the way they were treated in the pre Islamic world. It is a sad situation, but it is the reality that we cannot escape.
However, there is one more solution to fight off the dowry menace. The clergy should refuse solemnizing the marriages where the groom’s family is known to have asked dowry. But you need a different type of clergy to take such a bold stand and in our contemporary religious culture; this is not going to happen easily.