Dowries, Daughters, and Democracy – by Dr.Rakhshinda Perveen

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Dr.Rakhshinda Perveen
While certain terms and concepts have assumed the status of regular add-ons in prime-time TV shows, social media news, and print media editorials and opinions, any serious student of social development with an intersectional perspective would be puzzled. The devil lies in the details. Under the heavy weight of umbrella terms like SDGs, Elite Capture, or popular slogans like Investment in Women and Democratic Revenge, the specific issues somehow lose the due thoughtfulness and dedicated capital.
All outspoken practitioners who try to demystify feminism in local contexts must have a long list of barriers that are impacting the status of women and girls, who to date bear high scores on inequality indices. One such gender issue is the problematic prevalence of dowry and its comfortable institutionalization in the name of charity and corporate interests. While it may look like a benign tradition, the abuse of this patriarchal venture is not comprehended in Pakistan despite some symbolic actions and modifications in related laws.
In our extremely patriarchal society and business systems, the normative acceptance of dowry systems and lavish weddings does not even appear as a problem to lawmakers, including women legislators. And I say so based on my lived experiences.
The case of dowry remains a neglected form of gender-based violence, as well as VAWGC. There are multiple reasons for this failure: lack of donors’ attention, hegemonic masculinities, flawed strategies to foster the critical consciousness of women about their identity and self-esteem, and serious conflicts of interest among various key stakeholders, to name a few.
The country has been ranked 161st out of 192 countries up to 2022 on the Human Development Index (HDI), and the most recent ranking shows a further decline to the position of 164 out of 193 countries. Adding to the humiliation is the hostage situation with the IMF, which has also imposed some new conditions.
The current new setup is all set to, as per a recent news item, meet IMF requirements to introduce a tagging system in the budget for climate, gender, and SDG projects, aiming to enhance transparency and accountability in fund allocation for developmental goals, including poverty alleviation, labor, education, health, and youth development.

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A deeper understanding of the magnitude of the menace related to dowry systems will enable policymakers to find connections and correlations in the aforementioned areas. Little girls and sometimes boys are ‘married off,’ which should be seen as child abuse and exploitation to avoid dowry exchange or raise money.
On the other hand, women who enter the formal labor market or attain professional education, and even terminal degrees, remain (barring occasional exceptions) subject to the malignant culture of a visually magnificent marriage.
The daughter, decorated with degrees herself, becomes a dowry item. Alas! There is neither any political will to challenge such patriarchal investments nor any civic will to step out of the boundaries set by donors’ funds and lexicon.
In the last quarter of the century, research studies on the dowry system in South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan have confirmed the permeation of this practice across castes, creeds, clans, and communities. India, known for a strong anti-dowry (which also includes dowry demand) violence law, is now also known for lavish weddings of Amabnis and the backlash against this very law.
Any law seeking to protect women against any violence, including dowry violence, must never be criticized, condemned, or crippled on the baseless pretext that it does not work. This is nothing but yet another manifestation of patriarchal as well as elitist consensus. These shameful agreements reinforce the compromises of the criminal justice system in many countries like ours.

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Yet, I believe that Pakistan not only should have a strong law against dowry demand, ‘accidental’ stove death of newlywed brides, dowry injuries, and death but also against the display of lavish gifts, big fat weddings, and TV morning shows promoting such ideas.
The elites of society, including celebrity dress designers and wedding planners, have to be accountable before the non-elites. They cannot infuse a ‘depression effect through the display of wealth’ and harm the individual and collective mental health of society.
Moreover, social and behavior change communication strategies should be in place with empathy. It is not a choice between the law and awareness but about both. No law guarantees the eradication of any crime, but it always defines the moral foundations and position of the state on any matter.
While remaining cognizant of the dominant trends promoting charity work rather than questioning the root causes of poverty of income and opportunities, I still dare to put hope in the new democratic government irrespective of its genesis and genuineness.
My hope originates from the public statements of these two seemingly powerful men. One is the Pakistani premier, Shahbaz Sharif, who, while presiding over his very first federal cabinet meeting in this tenure, lamented that the elite class in the country controls 90 percent of the nation’s resources, stressing that this privileged group does not deserve any subsidies.
The other one is the PPP Chair, the young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who has often highlighted the “elite hurdle” and publicly talked about certain interest groups within the country’s elite as the most anticipated stumbling blocks in the way of implementing his party’s 10-point welfare manifesto.
There is no speedy and supernatural solution towards dismantling patriarchal structures and advancing gender justice, but implementing a tough law against the entire institution and establishment of dowry is definitely one such significant step in the right direction.
The writer is a published author, columnist, campaigner against dowry violence, and former TV anchor. She can be reached at @Apna_Wallet

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