Srinagar: Ye daulat ke bhukhe rawaajon ki duniya,
Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai
(This world hungry for wealth,
what if I attain the world).
Sahir Ludhianvi’s words find a semblance in the village of Badaghar Babe Wayil in the Ganderbal district of Central Kashmir, where burdensome societal norms and traditions associated with marriage have been thrown to the wind long ago to win the village the reputation of being a dowry-free zone. The villagers believe that many self-made customs only end up ruining the social fabric and leave you with nothing but material gains.
Sample this: 70-year-old Abdul Razaq*, a daily wage farmer, was the happiest man on this planet when he managed to get his two daughters in their mid-20’s married off without taking a loan or spending any money on their wedding.
“I was always a worried father. My anxiety grew manifold, when my son decided to live separately after his marriage. Who was to manage the amount of dowry and other wedding expenses for my daughters? But, Alhamdulillah (Praises be to God), the vow of keeping marriages simple and a dowry free affair in our community spared me of this mental agony,” he said.
The brides and grooms in this village prefer simple marriages over big fat weddings. Most of the weddings expenses are borne entirely by the groom’s family, and there is a complete ban on dowry in this village. The villagers have pledged to neither receive nor give dowry by signing a document on a stamp paper.
This vow was taken three decades ago when some untoward incidents of domestic violence cropped up in the village, which has a population of around 1,000 people. This greatly concerned the village elders, who collectively decided to draw up a no-dowry document on a stamp paper that was signed by the Imam, elders and other key people in the village.
The document also lays down that the groom’s family cannot demand anything from the bride’s side. In its place, the groom’s side gifts Rs 50,000 to the bride which includes Rs 20,000 as bride price (Mehr), Rs 20,000 as trousseau to be used by the bride for her wedding clothes, and Rs 10,000 for miscellaneous expenses. Any violator of the rule is slapped with a social boycott, and are denied admission to the masjid nor are they allowed to bury their dead in the local graveyard.
“I remember paying the same amount when I got married in my community. We also consider the fact that girls in our family can meet the same fate tomorrow, if we also start making these frivolous dowry demands from our wives,” said Javaid Ahmad Shah, a 32-year-old businessman, who got married five years ago.
The dowry system is a social practice that perpetuates the oppression, torture, and murder of women. The practice of dowry is an expected part of marriage in cultures where arranged marriages are the norm. Violence can occur when the dowry or bride-price is deemed unsatisfactory by the recipient. In India, in spite of laws prohibiting the practice, not much has changed over the last 30 years.
National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) 2019 report has exposed law enforcing agencies for slow progress in investigations into the crimes against women in Jammu and Kashmir.
There have been 1440 cases of assault on women with intent to outrage their modesty in Jammu and Kashmir. There have been 348 cases of cruelty by husbands in 2019. NCRB data revealed 381 women were kidnapped for forcible marriage. 369 victims have been in the age group of the forties and 368 in the late thirties.
The crime branch of Jammu and Kashmir police also recorded eight dowry-related deaths in the Union Territory which points out that the problem runs quite deep in the society.
“Faulty implementation of laws is one of the primary causes for the crimes against women. Shoddy investigation and flawed prosecution often help the culprits to escape the law,” social activist from Kashmir, Khawar Khan Achakzai said.
Khawar noted that there are laws providing equality in all spheres for women whether education, employment, property rights etc.
“We need to weed out the misogynist prejudices ingrained in our collective consciousness. Religious leaders and other civil society should take the initiative” he said.
Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi, the last chairperson of the erstwhile J&K Women’s Commission, noted that her office receives at least five to ten complaints a month through calls, social media and personal messages.
“We receive complaints of varied kinds ranging from domestic violence to child abuse, gender based discrimination, medical negligence and sexual harassment at work place,” Masoodi said.
*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the person.
Hirra Azmat is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who covers human interest stories with a special emphasis on health and environment.
All images provided by author