How many Shovas have to endure violence, severe torture and sometimes death when extortionary dowry demands cannot be met? How many monstrous husbands and in-laws will abuse and kill innocent young women because their parents cannot pay the dowry amount to the husbands or to their families? Despite anti-dowry laws in Bangladesh, such crimes are unabated. This has been happening all too often across Bangladesh. On September 12, New Age reported, in Gazipur, twenty-year-old Shova Rajmoni Hosna was allegedly killed by her husband Robiul Islam (27), over dowry. Regrettably, the latest dowry death had occurred on the fateful day of 9/11.
From the report, I concluded that Shova does not fall into a category of typical dowry victims because of her family’s social status. Her father Md Abdul Halim is a known figure in his area, as he is involved in politics. He is the joint general secretary in the central committee of Jatiya Party in Gazipur. Shova’s family background or her right to live did not matter to her greedy husband as he was enraged. The report stated that Robiul started beating his wife for failing to bring enough dowries. On the night of September 10, Shova informed her parents of the severe beating she got. Later, her parents got a phone call from their house owner’s wife that Shova was in a hospital due to the injuries that she had sustained. Her parents rushed there only to find a lifeless Shova who had succumbed to her injuries. The prime suspect Robiul is arrested. Members of law enforcement agencies are waiting for the autopsy report to confirm if this was a murder, or a suicide. Ever since reading this report, I have been waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about beautiful Shova in the hospital room, lying motionless.
Unfortunately, Shova has just become the latest statistic in a long list of dowry deaths. One would think, a normal and conscientious human being simply cannot beat another person to death, let alone his wife. Nevertheless, this terrible man named Robiul did exactly that.
Under pressure from the human rights groups, the Bangladesh government passed the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1980. This law ‘legally banned dowries and imposed sanctions’ by declaring that accepting dowry could land someone in jail, or a fine, or both. It will be an inadequate statement to say that the dowry violence related laws in Bangladesh have become an abysmal failure. This law mostly is ignored and not followed in practice. The newspapers and other media agencies are constantly reporting dowry violence, and the public is well aware of it. Sadly, the public scrutiny is not strong enough to have the dowry system totally eliminated.
Taking dowry from a bride’s family has become a national phenomenon. There is an unwritten custom that a new bride from all kinds of families and backgrounds will bring with her jewelry, money, and goods such as furniture, watch, motorbike, car, property or even livestock for her husband. People know that dowry practice is nothing short of savagery and evil, as many women are tortured or end up dead when they cannot bring the negotiated dowry amount. These days it is also very hard to distinguish between dowry death and murder as the line gets blurry while deciding. The ironic thing is that such gruesome cruelties and deaths are caused by the husbands and in-laws, who are supposed to protect the bride after the marriage.
The dowry system is prevalent in the subcontinent for centuries. Many South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, follow this revolting social convention regardless of different religious beliefs. It is essentially a contract between the father of the bride and the father of the groom before a marriage takes place. Marriage is supposed to be a social contract between a man and a woman, where they promise in the name of God to love and honor one another. By taking dowry, one undermines the entire sanctity of the institution of marriage. For each girl, in upper-class to middle-class, to the poor — a dowry is given to the groom’s family, no matter what. It determines a bride’s worth to that particular family.
Other than greed, poverty also plays a big role in accepting a dowry payment. Some people might argue that for a poor family, dowry is a means to an end. From the moment a baby girl is born, especially in low-income families, parents start worrying about dowry, and whether they will have enough wealth to protect the wellbeing of their daughter after she is married off. As far as I know, receiving dowry from the wife’s family is forbidden in the Qur’an. But the social customs are such that in the 21st century, consumed by greed, a discontent husband like Shova’s sometimes ends up murdering his wife.
I wonder when Shova was born what kind of hopes and dreams her parents had for her future. It appears that like many teen brides in Bangladesh, Shova was married off to Robiul very early. At the age of twenty, she was too inexperienced to stand against the injustice that was meted out to her. Perhaps no one had told her how to defend herself against the abuse, or where to find help to protect her. For girls in poor families, the situation is even grimmer. As it happens, most girls from low-income families do not go to school. Instead, when they are about ten years old, they are groomed for marriage and are trained to do household chores and how to cook. They are taught the intricate skills of stitching a kantha, do embroidery and learn to crochet a flower on a pillow-case in the hope of getting a good marriage proposal.
In our society, sometimes a dowry agreement has to be fulfilled because that particular family’s honour and social position are at stake. Dowry equals wealth - which becomes a status symbol. For an uneducated girl, a dowry payment starts at taka 20,000 but an educated girl often has to bring a much higher dowry to get the right bridegroom. In the villages, if a woman is not pretty enough, the demand seems to be higher. When a dowry payment is not met, many methods of unusual cruelty are often inflicted upon the wives by their husbands — torture, heavy beating, burning of their faces with acid, gang rape and other inconceivable mental and psychological punishment become a routine affair.
It is unbelievable that such atrocious acts and gruesome murders are being carried out with impunity in Bangladesh on a regular basis. Perhaps Shova’s case will make the human rights organisations like Ain o Salish Kendra reevaluate each case of dowry violence while they prepare their annual report. They should make sure that such incidents are not ‘lesser’ cases to go unnoticed. They should stand up for all victims irrespective of their social status and position. On a side note, after reading one my articles on a dowry violence victim, Brotee Samaj Kallyan Sangstha’s general secretary Sharmeen Murshid wrote to me to highlight her nonprofit organisation’s goal towards dowry practice. To quote her: ‘I have been working with this issue for the last ten years. My target is simple. Create a new generation of thinking young people who will not practice this in their own lives and take a stand against this. We have to help the young ‘unlearn’ before we can expect them to ‘relearn.’ Presently we have 1700 girls and boys (aged 14-25) who are promised bound not to take dowry and who are resisting this in 168 villages. It is a drop in the ocean. For many of us the journey has begun.’ That was five years ago, not much has changed since then.
What will entirely eliminate the dowry practice? Strict enforcements of the existing laws and necessary amendments of these laws will be a step in the right direction. In order to remove such a wicked social practice, the families with teen daughters have to change the concept of child marriage and offer schooling as an alternative to their preteen daughters. Undoubtedly, getting an education will make girls assertive and independent. Despite a slightly higher enrollment rate in education, and women becoming more independent than they were before, the culture and practice of dowry remains customary both explicitly and in some cases implicitly.
While media plays a key role by reporting the violence, serious enforcement of the dowry prohibition law is also essential to improve the current situation. However, such enforcements have proven to be difficult where the mass is involved as a whole. Regardless of the reality, one cannot give up; a social movement is needed to change the mindset of people in accepting and giving dowry. New legislation making girls’ education compulsory in the villages should be supported. Educated girls will be in a better position to combat the dowry system, and they will not feel like a commodity that is negotiated and contracted with the grooms’ family.
The sentencing laws for the perpetrators of dowry related crimes have to undergo radical changes. One should not get away by serving time only a few years in jail. Amended laws surely will be a deterrent to curbing the violence. Often the fear of severe punishment plays an important role in helping people to learn how to be civil and responsible social beings. People at all levels of society must work continuously to develop social awareness in stopping the violence. Otherwise, dowry related deaths will continue to rise.
Zeenat Khan, a former special education teacher at Our Lady of Victory in Washington DC, writes from Maryland, USA.
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