by Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi
Women have always been the safest on this part of the planet. Kashmir has been declared safe heaven for solo female tourists.
Ever since my childhood, I have been moved by the warmth of Kashmiriyat that is so unique and captivating that whosoever just happens to experience it even momentarily vouches for a lifetime. The Kashmiriyat that I have been exposed to has always been impregnated with innocence, compassion and empathy.
In recent times, however, very, unfortunately, the sheen of Kashmiriyat has been brutally assaulted by none other than Kashmiris themselves. In the last two decades where there has been an upward trend in literacy rate in Jammu and Kashmir, strangely the mindset of people is witnessing a decline as the number of domestic violence, dowry harassment, dowry deaths and suicide cases have soured to an astonishing spike.
Women have always been the safest on this part of the planet. Kashmir has been declared as a safe heaven for solo female tourists. Domestic violence was alien to Kashmiris let alone dowry deaths. With socio-cultural transition being rampant all across the globe especially in the eastern world, even Kashmir did not remain untouched by its influence. Marriage ceremonies are being organised with huge pomp and show with so much extravagance and grandeur that often the bride’s family has to borrow money from various sources.
Yet, nothing can satiate the greed for dowry in the groom’s family as the demands continue to hound the bride’s family sometimes under the garb of customary practices, sometimes as subtle manipulations and mostly as clear and shameless demands.
The recent cases of dowry deaths and unabashed assaults on women are an eclipse on Kashmiriyat. Just a few days after I was appointed as Chairperson of Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Protection of Woman and Child Rights (JKSCPWCR), we received a complaint wherein the victim was forced to commit suicide after she was brutally and regularly tormented by her husband and in-laws but the police did not register the case of dowry death despite clear and settled law for dealing such suicide cases.
It was only after the Commission intervened, FIR was registered against the accused persons. During my short tenure, I was flooded with such complaints, which was so heartening for me to digest because this is not my Kashmir; this is certainly not the Kashmiriyat we espouse for.
An Unfortunate Death
I vividly remember just a few days before the winding up of the Commission, I received a complaint from a woman’s parental family about how she was subjected to violence, battered and tortured mercilessly for dowry for many years and was also forced to live in a makeshift room made of corrugated steel sheets during extreme cold, and finally, she died due to burn injuries.
Though the Commission issued notice and sought ATR from the concerned SSP, yet, it remains an unresolved mystery whether she committed suicide or was charred to death by her husband and in-laws. Neither her husband nor in-laws informed the victims’ parental family or the police for two days after she was admitted to the SMHS hospital in a completely carbonised state.
The domestic violence cases in 2020 spiralled up during the lockdown days. Despite the closure of the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Protection of Woman and Child Rights, victims would approach me for seeking legal aid and counselling. The account of the atrocities, horror and violence they were subjected to would send shivers down the spine.
Women would complain that as they were working from home and had to be in front of a computer for a substantial period of time during the day, the women in the matrimonial home and even husbands would mock and taunt them for not doing household chores despite being at home, which ultimately led to bickering. Many a time they were forced to request their parents to arrange a domestic help who would work on their behalf at their matrimonial homes.
Apropos crime against women there has been a stark increase in Jammu and Kashmir as per the latest data released by National Crime Records Bureau. Even the latest survey conducted by National Family Health Survey makes startling revelations regarding domestic abuse against women in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Anantnag Murder
It is extremely unnerving to realise how quickly we forgot the unfortunate death of an innocent girl in Aishmuqam, Anantnag who was burnt to death in 2021. As per reports she was continuously victimised for dowry demands.
Recently a woman died due to poisoning in Shehlipora Achabal, South Kashmir. The family of the woman alleged that the victim was continuously tortured for dowry. They further alleged that in-laws of the victim fled the hospital instead of taking her body for last rites.
Why as a society are we failing to clamp down on this menace, which is slurping humanity like a black hole? Somewhere down the line, I feel women and their families, if not equally but to a considerable extent a contributor towards this unending virus of dowry. I have always advised women and their parents to identify even the slightest of a hint or indicator(s) of dowry demand from the prospective groom’s side.
Sometimes these indicators are deliberately ignored as the bride’s family don’t want to annoy the groom and his family at any juncture before marriage or when they don’t want to lose a potentially (economically) so-called good match. The deliberate ignorance feigned by the bride or her family towards the greedy attitude of the groom or his family is a blunder that often leads to irreversible and irreparable loss of life and limb.
Here even women need to take a stand. There have been an umpteen number of cases wherein the bride refused to marry right at the time of the marriage ceremony because she did not want to budge before the unjustified dowry demands. A marriage, which is not solemnised is much better than a dead or a victimised daughter. The demand for dowry may not be direct, especially these days, it is subtle, sophisticated and camouflaged as a compulsory status symbol.
For instance, regular mentioning of a car or an apartment being gifted to somebody known or related to the groom, designer clothes for the groom’s family and relatives, jewellery, return gifts for the baraaties, venue of marriage and not to forget ever-increasing and a never-ending list of dishes in waazwan. If cannot be afforded, why the hell on earth do we need to splurge so much on weddings?
It is for the bride and her family to realise that failure to say “NO” in the beginning would open Pandora’s box and encourage the in-laws to go on with their merciless demands that refuse to die until the girl dies. Women need to ensure that they do not compete with their friends or relatives in spending over wedding festivities.
I do not want to sound like moral police as it is an individual’s right to spend whatever hell of a moolah on their wedding but this is something, which eventually shows the way to greedy in-laws. There have been few instances wherein women went overboard in terms of pressurising their parents for bearing completely unwanted and unnecessary expenses, despite their parents not being in a condition to afford, just because they wanted to out fashion their peers or cousins.
This mad race and herds mentality need to seriously end as it is fast turning into a pandemic like situation. As per several studies, it has come to the fore that many women in Kashmir remain unmarried or get married at a later age only for the fact that their families can’t satisfy the unjust dowry demands.
In many cases, the wife is pressurised by her husband and in-laws to seek her share in the parental property and they try to legitimise it under the garb of Shariat. Indisputably, women in Islam have a proportionate share in their parental property but that should be none of the business of her husband or in-laws to pressurise her for making such claim which should be voluntary and free from any coercion.
Jaheez and Mehar
Jaheez is an Arabic term that means “dowry”, given by the bride’s family as a wedding present. It is either given in cash or in-kind, sometimes as gold ornaments, fridge, television, and vehicle, movable or immovable property. In Quran, Surah Nisa, verse 34, it is provided “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has given the one more than the other and because they support them from their means’’.
Therefore, in presence of explicit commandment by Allah (SWT) in Surah Nisa, it is incumbent and obligatory upon men to protect and maintain their wives and any harassment, torture or violence against the wives for whatever reason, that includes dowry as well, is completely un-Quranic and un-Islamic.
Whereas Mehar means dower that is ought to be given or promised by the groom to the bride at the time of tying the nuptial knots and which is a precondition for an Islamic wedding, it could be tangible or intangible. “And give the women (upon marriage) their dowry as a free gift,” Quran (Surat An Nisa: 4). Thus in Islam, it is mandatory to give Mehar (dower) as a free gift without any consideration in lieu of it.
Jahez and Mehar are two different concepts; the former is an attribute of cultural tradition with no religious or legal sanction whereas the letter is a pre-requisite for the wedlock in Islam.
Domestic violence is categorically abhorred and prohibited in view of Islamic jurisprudence and Prophetic injunctions. It is demoralizing and disgusting to realise that despite such conspicuous ruling in Islam against dowry or domestic violence, Muslim women are being increasingly battered and even burnt to death by dowry seeking husbands and in-laws whom I term as “dowry wolfs”.
Dowry, Jahez or Dahej, is a customary practice prevalent in the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial but what is shocking is the fact with increasing literacy, advancement in civilization and technology this menace does not cease to exist, per contra, emboldened than ever before and fashioned as a status symbol in the current times.
India enacted Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961 that provides that if any person, after the commencement of this Act, gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years, and with the fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry.
Further, 498 A of the Indian Penal Code provides that being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.
This further provides that “cruelty” means – any wilful conduct likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman or harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.
Section 304(B) of the Indian Penal Code provides that if the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called “dowry death”, and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death. It further provides that whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.
Despite such legal provisions the lives of innocent girls continue to be emaciated bringing absolute shame and disgust to the collective conscience of society.
Supreme Court Rules
Recently, the Supreme Court of India while hearing a petition dealing with the need to bring about reforms in anti-dowry law observed that“change also has to come from within on how women should be treated”.
“There has to be an understanding about the basic social value of marriage. How a woman, newly married, should be treated…”, Justice Chandrachud observed. The Supreme Court further requested the Law Commission of India to take a fresh look to bring “more teeth” to the law against dowry. Since dowry is a deep-rooted socio-cultural evil it should be dealt with from the nadir to the top of the social fabric vis-à-vis legal and penal provisions.
There must be active involvement of all the stakeholders and public-state partnership programmes on the incessant bases, such as capacity building, awareness programmes, a deputation of dowry prohibition officers at local levels, to uproot this menace from society and to achieve this, the phoenix of the evil mindset of the society must burn for a better society to rise.
(The writer, an Advocate at the Supreme Court Of India, earlier headed Jammu and Kashmir State Commission For Protection of Woman and Child Rights. The opinions expressed in this write-up are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the views of Kashmir Life.)