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      March 18, 2013

Detail




Dowry Culture Prevailing in Chitral

Chitral had always prided itself on its daughters. What set Chitral apart in this regard may have been the lack of an oppressive dowry culture that was common to much of the sub-continent. Dowry was minimal and was usually provided by the groom’s family (not that it made this practice any less of a menace).

Simplicity and practicality were the inherent values prized by Chitralis when it came to marriage. There were usually no lengthy gestation periods after an engagement was announced. So the practice of chat mangni pat biah (wedding just after engagement) was very common in Chitral. Wedding expenses involved the zheri (reception), a very nominal dowry, as well as transportation costs of one or two jeeps. The engagement, known as allahu akbar in the Khowar language, was a very simple ceremony that involved 2 or 3 representatives from both the bride’s and groom’s families. The glitter of gold and the exchange of engagement rings were alien to the local culture particularly upper Chitral. Instead of gold ring a bracelet of inexpensive stones was gifted to bride during engagement which later was replaced by wrist watch and finally gold ring. A day before zhoor weshek (the wedding ceremony), the bride, accompanied by her friends or cousins, would visit her relatives, neighbors’ and friends to say good-bye (khodayar – a chitrali version of the bridal shower). It would be her last day as a single woman and this auspicious occasion would see her being showered with blessings for a blissful, marital life. The bride would be treated to gifts (chighech) that have timeless domestic significances, such as crockery and embroidered items.

Times and cultural norms began to evolve with increasing urbanization. Values adopted in the cities began to rip through the fabric of age-old traditions. During the last 10 to 15 years, Chitrali marriage traditions began to change, usually for the worse. The media played its part; but so too did families that returned from urban life. Gold jewelries are now instinctively demanded in any Chitrali marriage. An engagement without a gold ring began to be unthinkable. Inspired by surrounding cultures, young Chitrali ladies began to spend a major part of their own (or their family savings) on dresses and other accessories. Bridal accessories now include modern household electronics, high-end furniture and crockery, expensive dresses and similar accoutrements to equip the groom’s house. Marriages became commercialized, with accessories becoming more important than the promise of conjugal bliss.

Though some Chitrali communities, led by their elders, have rebelled against these changes, they face an uphill -- and almost impossible -- task. It’s like the mountains that cradled our culture have begun to close in on us. Our timeless valleys are now flowing with the streams of regression and this is perhaps symptomatic of what ails Pakistan itself.

Other societies are moving on. Dowries were once a universal practice, common to both the East and West. The European royalty used to gift large provinces as a part of their dowry obligations. Instead of political alliances, much less marital bliss, Europe became engulfed in incessant turmoil throughout much of its history, sparked by family rivalries and new landholdings. But that is now history.

Only in South Asia, especially in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka the practice of dowry elevated to an expensive art. Although this is illegal in these countries, India tops this wedding cake, so to speak, with a dowry death numbering 8,391 in 2010. That amounts to a shocking one dowry death per hour. Around 90% of murdered brides were educated, according to the statistics of India. Brides are not the only victims here. This cultural malaise has resulted in pandemic gender-specific abortions and distorted sex ratios, in much of India. The 2011 Indian population census reveals 940 females for every thousand males. Pakistan is also suffering badly from this curse. An estimated 3,379 dowry killings occurred during the 2004-2009 period, in addition to some 8,041 women killed over other types of property disputes.

In these societies, girls from poor families have become huge liabilities from the moment they are born. Dowry becomes a crude savings plan as soon as the birth certificate is signed. This pernicious tradition can continue, post-marriage, till the death of the bride’s parents. Therefore, dowry, instead of being a symbolic blessing conferred on a new household, has morphed into a parasitic curse. This is why they say “dowry is the price paid by parents to get daughters the post of a daughter-in-law.”

Once such customs are established, it becomes extremely difficult to eradicate them. As we can see in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh where the dowry system is entrenched, there are endless awareness debates, seminars, TV talk shows, articles in newspapers and magazines, and even awareness forums on the internet to combat this menace. Several NGOs are actively working to end this menace. But have they succeeded? Isn’t it up to the individual to say “no” to an oppressive, alien practice?

Maybe, it’s time for Chitrali youths to pave the way; to return to their roots, their culture and their age-old simplicity. It is time to regain our gentle age-old traditions, and least live and marry the way we used to.

Can we really ascribe a value -- and that too in rupee terms -- to our sisters, daughters and mothers? Aren’t they priceless?

Hanifa Beg
Khuzh, Chitral
 

 

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