Expensive dowries damage women

Marriage should not be an auction to the highest bidder, writes Shelina Janmohamed

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Men are not cash machines, and women are not commodities to be traded in a marketplace.

However, around the world, the buying and selling of women and men as commodities – but women in particular – persists under the cultural umbrella of dowry.

Even today in some cultures a woman is only granted status and economic security if she is married. To get married, her family may be required to offer the groom’s family a hefty dowry. For poorer families, especially with several daughters, dowries may be unaffordable. And this leaves women socially condemned to spinsterhood and to lives as social outcasts.

In the subcontinent, despite dowries from the bride’s family to the groom’s family being illegal, deaths of wives who have not paid or supposedly underpaid are rife. Mental and physical abuse of the wife over the dowry is commonplace. And the bride’s family is sometimes left in massive debt.

Recently, four sisters in Pakistan in their 30s and 40s committed suicide by jumping in a river because their father had no dowry for their marriages. A fifth sister also jumped but was found alive. It makes me wonder, what is the value of a woman, and the value of a marriage. Is it financial or do we need a shift to seeing marriage and women as companions and partners rather than commodities?

In Islamic stipulation the man is required to pay the dowry – called mahr – to the woman as a gift upon completion of the marriage ceremony. The aim is to elevate the status of women by offering a token of affection to seal the marriage contract. Yet today women and their families are demanding unaffordable mahrs from the groom.

In a bizarre reversal of the problems facing women in the subcontinent, Muslim men are increasingly facing an unappetising choice between heavy debt and bachelor life. The number of unmarried men and women in the Middle East is on the rise as unemployment or even low pay means men find it hard to raise huge mahr payments.

Fathers claim they don’t want their daughters to be “devalued” by accepting mahrs below the “market average”. But this just reduces women to objects with a price tag. Marriage is a relationship, not an auction to the highest bidder.

It’s inspiring to hear the story of a Saudi father whose son-in-law to be was on the way to the house to marry his daughter but whose money for the mahr was stolen en route. The son-in-law asked that the wedding be postponed so he could raise new funds for the mahr. The father, understanding the importance of marriage over money simply changed the mahr to one Saudi riyal and the marriage proceeded.

In Yemen, a father asked a financially strapped groom not for money, but for a million Facebook likes to prove his commitment. Through this unusual request, he also wanted to highlight the problems of mahr facing young men.

There’s far too much lip service about marriage being the foundation of the family, and family being the foundation of society, all the while what social behaviour actually demonstrates is that in reality marriage is a transaction where men and women are evaluated by their financial worth rather than their qualities.

If we want marriage to mean something, price tags need to be taken out of the equation. You can’t buy a happy marriage.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk