From classism to economic independence, a lot of factors have cropped up to create a giant shadow over humanity’s oldest institution of marriage in Kashmir. Raashid Andrabi details the instances and the consequences of delayed marriages in Kashmir and how in a few cases the community has successfully chalked out a new protocol
More than 750 years ago, a highly respected Sufi saint, Syed Baba Abdul Razzaq, embarked on a journey from Baghdad to Kashmir with a mission to spread the teachings of Islam. He settled at the foothills of Guttil Bagh and founded Baba Wayil village. The saint lays resting in the village with people respecting him and living with the teachers he imparted.
Now home to more than 5000 people, the Baba Wayil residents survive on two main trades: cultivating walnut trees and weaving Pashmina shawls.
Off late, the village, known for its rich Sufi history, has stood up against lavish weddings and heavy dowries, a crisis that has plagued Kashmir. Almost four decades ago, the village made a unanimous decision that would forever alter its societal fabric. Determined to return to the teachings of their Sufi saint, the villagers agreed to reject the notion of extravagant weddings and completely banned the practice of dowry.
Before this decision, weddings in Baba Wayil, like most of Kashmir now, were grand affairs, laden with exorbitant expenses and elaborate celebrations. Families often found themselves burdened with crippling debts just to meet societal expectations. The custom of dowry added to the financial strain, leading to delayed marriages and various other social ills.
But the villagers of Baba Wayil embraced the wisdom of their saintly founder; they adopted a simple and affordable approach to weddings. The ban on dowries heralded a new era of social reform.
A community document signed by more than 100 families, both the bride’s and groom’s families adhere to a Rs 50,000 contribution for wedding expenses. Gold, once a prized dowry component, has been completely shunned. The result is heartening – weddings are now joyous occasions celebrated without financial burden, fostering early marriages, and promoting a healthier societal environment.
Bashir Ahmed Shah, the local Imam at Markazi Jamia Masjid Baba Wayil, commends the residents’ decision, labelling dowry as a “social evil” responsible for various social problems. The positive effects of their reform are evident, with young boys and girls getting married below the age of 30, breaking free from the shackles of an outdated practice.
“Dowry has long been a social evil, causing immense suffering and perpetuating inequality,” Shah said. “It’s heartening to see the positive impact of their reform, with young couples now embracing a new path, free from the burdens of this outdated practice.”
The village’s strong resolve is further emphasized by their united approach towards enforcing the ban. Any violation of the dowry ban faces severe consequences, with the erring family subjected to a social boycott, barred from praying at the local mosque, and denied burial in the village graveyard. For 18 years, the village has stood firm, with not a single reported violation of the ban. The courage to challenge prevailing customs has earned Baba Wayil recognition far beyond its serene landscape.
Interestingly, however, Baba Wayil continues to be the only such address. Kashmir continues to have fat, mad weddings as its post-hunger identity and it is dooming the new generation. Families find themselves ensnared in a vicious cycle of debt as they strive to uphold societal expectations of extravagant ceremonies. The pressure to conform to these norms has led to the financial and emotional distress of many families, creating a crisis that extends beyond the realms of matrimony.
A similar situation prevails in most of the Chenab Valley region. There, the family can help the bride and groom in raising a new family but they are never allowed to spend too much on feasts. “We had a family in Doda that drove a lot of Wazas from Srinagar to prepare Wazwaan for their marriages. It was actually a copy of the Kashmir wedding,” one Doda lawyer said. “Once the people knew what he did, they boycotted him and he publicly apologised.”
Kashmir in Distress
The release of the report titled Youth in India – 2022 by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation took Kashmir by storm. Jammu and Kashmir emerged as the state with the highest percentage of unmarried youth in 2019, defying the national average.
The report sheds light on the plight of unmarried women in these regions, where the dowry system perpetuates gender inequality and reduces women to mere commodities, valued solely based on the dowry they can bring to a marriage. The societal stigma attached to unmarried women has been a significant obstacle in their pursuit of education, careers, and personal aspirations.
The data from the report shows a growing trend of unmarried youth in Jammu and Kashmir, with both men and women affected. The percentage of young individuals who have never been married has risen from 25.3 per cent in 2011 to 29.1 per cent in 2019.
Breaking down the figures, the report indicates that among those aged 15-19, 9.5 per cent have never been married. For the 20-24 age group, the number stands at 10.7 per cent, while for the 25-29 age group, the percentage is recorded at 8.9 per cent.
Interestingly, these figures emerged at a time when Jammu and Kashmir is facing a challenging demographic situation, with its Total Fertility Rate (TFR) being one of the fifth lowest in the country.
According to a survey conducted in April 2020 by Tehreeki Falahul Muslimeen, an NGO, more than 50,000 girls have crossed the marriageable age in Kashmir.
The NGO had initially planned to arrange and cover the marriage expenses of a hundred unmarried poor girls but discovered that thousands had already exceeded the acceptable marriage age. Most of these women belonged to underprivileged families and had fallen victim to various new social issues. The survey also highlighted how customs like dowry have worsened the situation.
National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS-5) conducted in 2019-21 puts the total fertility rate (TFR) in Jammu and Kashmir at 1.4 children per woman, which is below the replacement level of fertility, set at 2.1 children. Fertility has decreased by 0.6 children between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5. This places Jammu and Kashmir among the regions with the lowest TFR, attributed to factors such as effective family planning, delayed marriages, and preferences for smaller family sizes.
Interestingly, Jammu and Kashmir also boast the lowest percentage of teenage pregnancies in India, which is indicative of the prevailing trends in marriages and family planning. Kashmir was only notorious for teenage marriages and teenage widows in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a malady which has effectively been undone. The national average for Teenage Motherhood stands at 6.8 per cent, Jammu and Kashmir reports just one per cent of females bearing a child during in teenage.
The proportion of women who have started childbearing rises sharply from 1 per cent at the age of 18 years to 4 per cent among women aged 19 years. The proportion that has begun childbearing is much higher among young women who had no schooling (6 per cent) than those with 12 or more years of schooling (0.6 per cent).
Expensive gifts, golden jewellery, copperware, elaborate meals at wedding ceremonies, and other customs have turned the sacred institution of marriage into a burden for parents with limited resources, making it difficult for them to manage the responsibilities of marrying off one or more daughters.
Strong, Successful and Single
Nousheen Bhat aspired to become independent and carve her path in architecture. She pursued her studies and honed her skills, earning recognition in this traditionally male-dominated domain. Years flew by, and she found herself standing proudly as an accomplished professional.
However, despite her successes, lingering societal pressure to marry weighed on her. Approaching her late thirties, she discovered the journey towards finding a partner was far from smooth. The passage of time posed an insurmountable barrier, with the perception of her age creating challenges in pursuing love and companionship.
“I am 37 now, an independent professional architect from Kashmir, but finding a perfect groom seems an elusive dream,” she sighed, her voice tinged with frustration with hopeful undertones.
Often labelled “older women” in matrimonial contexts, she grapples with stereotypes and notions undermining their potential for meaningful and fulfilling partnerships. “As the years went by, I pursued my studies and built my career, but the age factor now works against me,” Nousheen regretted. “The men I desire hesitate to marry someone my age, and the ones interested are just not my cup of tea. It’s strange to be labelled an ‘old woman’ seeking love and companionship.”
She is not alone. Many successful women in Kashmir sail in the same boat, deemed above the ‘healthy marriageable’ age.
“We face countless choices daily, from dresses to wear to partners to spend our future with. When we see many potential partners, expectations and standards naturally skyrocket,” Nousheen concludes.
In a 2006 study Marital Delay in Kashmir, A Qualitative Study by Navshad Ahmad Wani, Swati Patra and Rayees Mohammad Bhat, the three prominent reasons for the marital delay in Kashmir are Completion of Education, Unemployment and financial constraints around Marriage Preparation.
The study found that women’s employment results in marital delay, complicating the marriage market. Unlike India’s caste system, the one in Kashmir is based on occupations and, to some extent, poses an obstacle to inter-caste marriages.
Saima, an engineer in her thirties, has relinquished all aspirations of marriage owing to the constraints imposed by her classist family’s ‘Same Caste’ demand. “My parents always said they will marry their children within the same caste,” she admits. For nearly a decade now, she has immersed herself in her career, achieving independence and forging her path forward. “It has been almost 10 years since I started working and became independent.”
In her younger years, Saima envisioned a joyfully married life, planning her wedding with optimism and excitement. But, “As time passed, I started to realise that maybe I would not get married,” she confided, revealing her vulnerability.
In regions like Kashmir, despite Islam’s egalitarian ideals, it is evident that various caste-based practices persist, leading to restrictions, such as preferences for marrying within one’s caste.
“It is not about my family; I want to marry a Syed. It’s not because I believe we are superior; rather, it’s about embracing an environment I have never experienced before,” another Syed girl in her mid-thirties explains her stance. “We must run our family and spend our entire lives together, which is why we prefer not to be in a place where we might struggle to settle properly and create difficulties for both ourselves and our family.”
The caste system in South Asia has solidified to such an extent that any deviation from it is viewed as a form of rebellion. The same is true for Kashmir as well. Even among those who converted to Islam from elite Hindu castes like Brahmins and Rajputs, the hierarchical structure persisted, allowing them to retain their privileges despite Islam’s ideals.
In his book Directory of Caste in Kashmir, the late Kashmiri sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla classified castes into three groups: Syed, occupational, and service. He observed that despite claims that the caste system no longer exists in Kashmir, it remains a functional social institution.
Although discrimination has somewhat declined, casteism still strongly influences marriages. Those at the top avoid inter-caste unions, reflecting the enduring grip of the caste system on people’s minds.
What is too late?
Factors like financial stability, poverty, unemployment, dowry burdens, extravagant customs, limited education access, and waiting periods for government jobs lead to delayed marriages. Women increasingly focusing on careers has also resulted in postponing marriage.
Samah, 35, described facing difficulties finding a suitable partner, echoing challenges her elder sister faced due to strong religious beliefs and societal norms. Her sister initially encountered obstacles as her piety and simplicity were seen as too religious. Despite family efforts, the search was arduous and time seemed against them.
“I witnessed my parents’ struggles and felt their helplessness,” Samah shared, reflecting on years of frustration. “After eight long years, they finally found a match for my sister at 35, when I was 32.”
Unfortunately, Samah remains in the same predicament, still searching for three years after her sister’s marriage. “Sadly, my parents face the same difficulties finding a match for me,” she revealed.
Age constraints significantly hinder her quest, with older men seeking younger partners, leading to repeated rejections that leave her and her parents deeply disheartened. Earlier, the tradition of making daughters independent and helping them settle professionally was an urban phenomenon. Now it is mainstream with the Kashmir periphery also following the trend.
“Despite achieving my dreams and having a stable job, societal standards and age constraints hinder my chances of settling down,” Samah concluded.
Professor Dabla’s 2007 study Emergence of late marriages in Kashmir revealed over the past three to four decades, the average marrying age increased from 24 to 32 for men and 21 to 28 for women, up from 23 and 20 years previously.
According to the study, unemployment, pursuing higher education, and other factors have caused the rising marriage age. Renowned gynaecologists have expressed concerns over late marriages for women, emphasizing the ideal age is 23-28 years.
Dr Farah, a Srinagar-based gynaecologist, highlights the negative effects: “Late marriage can lead to mental and physical hazards, so marrying within the recommended range is crucial.”
According to Dr Farah, late marriage significantly decreases a woman’s fertile years, making conception more difficult. “As a woman ages and becomes pregnant, risks of miscarriages, abnormalities, and defects rise, underscoring the importance of earlier family planning. Maximum fertility occurs during these years, and as a woman gets older, her ovarian reserve decreases, affecting conception chances.”
The trends are not shifting even after the clergy is speaking against complex and lavish weddings. In Islam, they insist that marriage has to be simple and less expensive so that sinning is difficult.
Delayed marriages and childbirths in elderly couples usually result in an unhealthy new generation. They add to a new social crisis subsequently as the two generations are set in two distant time frames. Parents retiring from services and the children yet to pass the matriculation examination!
In order to offer some kind of solace to sections not having enough resources to have dignified marriages, some social workers have started the concept of mass marriages concept in Kashmir. However, these marriages are less frequent and more for camera and the publicity of the people behind the imitative.