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Happily ever after?

  • Published at 05:21 pm February 3rd, 2017
Happily ever after?

If one were to look closely into the elaborate history of weddings in Bangladesh, weddings in the rural areas have always taken place with dowry, or joutuk, being an inherent element and binding factor of these unions.

Dowry is a form of extortion, be it monetary or materialistic, that the groom and his family unlawfully demand from the bride and her family. Traditionally, the latter looks at it as a medium through which their daughter will be residing amidst security, both physical and financial, after her marriage, living happily ever after so to speak.

However, this is not the case.

The dire reality of joutuk is much harsher than it is on ink and paper.

If for any unforeseeable circumstances the bride’s family is unable to give or pay joutuk to the groom’s family, the bride will be ostracised from society, being the inevitable victim to social stigma.

Thus, as the penultimate scarlet letter being social stigma, most girls resort to prostitution, are sold to traffickers by their in-laws to make up for the loss of capital, and even commit suicide when drastic and desperate measures are taken. As a result, countless women have been affected by this atrocious move that is predominantly maintained in numerous villages even today.

Due to the ever-increasing rise in domestic abuse and dowry-related suicides in the past couple of years, the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs has finally taken matters into its own hands, by looking into drafting an amendment for the anti-dowry law, Joutuk Nirodh Ain, 1980.

Nevertheless, despite this great initiative, time and again, history has been our greatest teacher. If one were to draw parallels, one would not need to look far back into history.

Not too long ago, Hindu women were subject to similar oppression through the custom of sati. Sati was a tradition that Hindu widows had to adhere to when their husbands died; they jumped onto the very funeral pyres in which their spouses were being cremated, subsequently being burned alive to their ghastly deaths.

The likes of influential intellectuals and scholars such as Ishwarchandra Bidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, championed for the rights and agency of women, by lobbying for an anti-sati law.

Sati was eventually abolished through the Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829. Yet as the years went by, many pondered whether this really helped the case of Hindu widows. Highly acclaimed scholar Lata Mani argued that by not wholly understanding the dynamics of sati and by dismissing it as being “brutal and barbaric,” anti-sati advocates did not help facilitate agency for women by abolishing it.

The dire reality of joutuk is much harsher than it is on ink and paper. If for any unforeseeable circumstances the bride’s family is unable to give or pay joutuk to the groom’s family, the bride will be ostracised from society, being the inevitable victim to social stigma

Their agency was rather denied than promoted. Most widows resorted to sati, because it allowed them to not be subject to financial extortion and variant and abhorrent degrees of social stigma.

Contrarily, widows, who did not commit sati, had their inheritance and property taken away from them by their in-laws and were sent away to ashrams, where they were forced to lead lives of austerity, devoid of human interaction and pleasure.

Sadly, women have always been the floor upon which such intellectual debates have taken place, thus being further ensnared in the clutches of patriarchy.

Such cultural practices, ie joutuk and sati, and the laws that attempt to prohibit these acts, have further fetishised women, transforming them into mere commodities.

The question of individuality, personal freedom and agency is no longer a part of the picture for women.

It is of utmost importance that this upcoming amendment of the anti-dowry law helps to somewhat relinquish the hold of patriarchy, enabling women to be individuals with free will, instead of being mere objects through which capital resources are solely accessed or denied.

Women resort to drastic measures like suicide because they are made to feel that they are nothing more than trivial pawns in the grander scheme of things.

Laws have been put in place to help stop the pandemic of domestic abuse, social stigma, and occurrence of dowry, yet these have done nothing to help alleviate the cause of women and their agency.

It is about time for these mandates to help redefine and rearticulate the whole narrative of women’s roles in marriage and marriage itself within the context of Bangladesh.

Nafisa Kazi Iqbal is pursuing her MSc in Early Childhood Development at BRAC Institute of Educational Development (BIED).

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