By Kate James
In a multicultural society like Australia there are many different cultural traditions for which the law must allow. However in a recent anti-dowry summit in Melbourne, academics including Dr Manjula O’Connor are calling for federal law banning dowries, saying that the practise devalues women. The worth of a woman becomes judged on what her family can offer, and due to the stigma of divorce in many cultures where dowries are common, the husband can often extort extravagant gifts from the bride’s family.
There is also a concern that the practise is related to abusive relationships and domestic violence. Deep, (not her real name), 27, met her Indian husband on an online matrimonial site. He was nice, her parents approved and he did not agree with the ancient practise of dowries, where the wife’s family gives gifts and money to the husband’s family. Deep’s parents paid for a lavish Australian-Sikh wedding and for a year everything was fine. However despite the husband’s stance against dowries, her in-laws then demanded her family pay for another wedding in India, to meet their ‘higher standards’. The wedding cost $16,000 and involved 1,400 guests. Deep’s parents also paid $8,000 in gold to the husband’s family.
These kinds of demands are not unheard of, says Dr Manjula. In India there is a huge stigma around divorce, so girls’ families do everything possible to save the marriage and keep the husband and in-laws happy.
“A divorced girls’ life is not normal in India,” Deep said.
“I belong to a small town, I belong to Punjab, they start abusing and start blaming girls.”
As a psychiatrist Dr Manjula has seen many domestic violence cases, and 50% of them are dowry related.
“The grooms are not happy with the amount of dowry offered, it’s insufficient for their needs or their wishes, as a result of which there are demands for more dowry,” she said.
“When the women are refusing those demands, it is leading to domestic violence, emotional abuse much more than physical abuse, but then it becomes physical abuse, and then threats of violence.”
This was the experience of Deep. After they returned from their wedding in India, her husband became abusive, forced her to have sex and told her every day that she was worthless. Deep, a doctor, was told that she was a loser and a “piece of shit”.
He then demanded that her family give them $50,000 for a house deposit. When Deep refused her husband abused her before walking out.
The anti-dowry summit in Melbourne held by the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health was aimed at preventing Deep’s story being a common one. Unfortunately the practise is so entrenched within certain cultures that even federal laws might not overcome it. In India for example dowries have been banned since 1961, yet Dr Majula says the practise still thrives.
“My opinion is, ideally, one would like to not have any dowry at all but we know that the tradition of dowry is an ancient one, and in India, despite the laws since 1961 to ban it, it is still thriving,” she says.
“So it is not possible to ban it but what we can do is take it to a level where it is reasonable and easy for young people and their families, where the dowry is a symbolic exchange of gifts rather than massive one-way gift giving.”
If dowries become smaller in value it may also help prevent husbands and their families having all the power in the marriage relationship. As Deep experienced, husbands can often ask for exorbitant sums families are desperate to cough up to save the embarrassment of a divorce. Even now when Deep and her husband are separated her parents do not let her tell anyone. Dr Majula aims for laws to soon make it a civil or criminal offence to extort dowry.
To read more, see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-14/calls-for-national-anti-dowry-law/8121182