Is India’s dowry culture coming to Australia?

By Neena Badhwar

Evil habits propagate fast. From India, the bane of dowry is now spreading Down Under.

Not altogether an unworthy custom originating in ancient India, dowry was a gesture of goodwill that parents practised in a tradition that honoured women as goddesses, in an act of giving and never taking anything away from them. Our traditional parents followed the custom sometimes to extremes ”“ asking for a glass of water from the neighbours rather than drinking from the tap in their daughter’s house when visiting them.

The custom evolved, especially at the time of weddings, then disoriented and sometimes distorted from an act of giving to a deal of business, from a gesture of helping a departing daughter to setup a household into an arm twisting exercise by bridegroom’s family to extort unholy reparations for educational expenses and the like. Dowry also, perhaps, compensated the women who were not usually entitled to inheritance and property rights from their parents.

The custom of dowry applies to all castes, religions and regions in India. Among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims or Christians, girls are expected to bring a dowry of some sort. At times the boy’s family makes extreme demands on girl’s parents who are sometimes forced to take loans.

In the male-dominated society of India, dowry custom does not stop at wedding but continues with man’s family commanding and demanding more and more for years on end. On festivals, birth of a child and even at deaths, girl’s parents are expected to pay around various ceremonies. Dowry has become such a burden on girl’s parents that it even leads to the terrible practice of female foeticide because parents feel that a girl child is going to be a liability for ever.

In India, in 2012, there were approximately 8,233 dowry related deaths. In 1961, the Indian government made dowry practices a criminal offence when it created the Dowry Prohibition Act. This was amended in 1984 and then again in 1986.

The Act does not seem to have helped since dowry related bride burning deaths are common in India even today. Rather, the demands have increased as more Indians prescribe to greed and aspire to become rich quick.

The abuse is now emotional as well as physical which drives many to take the extreme step to even commit suicide. Many dowry deaths are blamed on women that she threw kerosene on herself and set herself aflame. There have been some suspicious deaths in the kitchen as well from burnings from gas stoves.

This social vice is compounded by rich parents showering more and more on their daughters to show off their newly acquired wealth. Even though the government has banned dowry and made it illegal, people take truckloads of household furniture and white goods and deliver it stealthily before or after the actual wedding day so that they don’t get caught.

Lately in Australia, there have been lavish weddings and one wonders whether the dowry custom is slowly finding its roots here. Many newly arrived migrants are under financial pressure as they settle in the new country. At times the boys have paid so much money having come on student visas to study that they are under financial burden and make demands on the girls and their families for money. They often say that they want to set up a business or pay off a study loan. This normally goes hand in hand with abuse and exploitation of their spouse.

One domestic violence case that came to light was of a girl, Gita (name changed), that she asked her parents $50,000 so that her husband could invest in a business that he was intending to do. When the girl refused she was emotionally abused so much so that she got seriously sick. If it was not for her mother who insisted to see her and wanted to find out why her otherwise healthy, happy daughter had suddenly fallen sick, the emotional exploitation would not have been exposed. Gita’s mother took a bold decision and decided to take her daughter home and file for a divorce.

In another case, the son was so much under his mother’s thumb that he would not take any decisions in favour of his wife and the child. The wife told TIDU, “The family had claimed that my husband had a post graduate qualification but when I came here I found he was driving a taxi. That was also ok but the family, on my very first night of arrival, went through my suitcase to see what I had brought. I was taunted all the time that I ”˜break rotis’ the whole day and do nothing.”

Another case is of a girl who is now separated. She said, “He used to ask huge sums like $20,000, sometimes more, by saying that he wanted to buy a car. Where could my parents in India afford since one Australian dollar is close to fifty rupees. My parents had spent on my wedding by taking a loan of five lakh rupees and there he was making new demands now for a car. My parents are not that rich and to convert rupees into dollars they would have to sell their house in India to fulfil his demands. When I refused, he started to torture me and beat me. I had nowhere to turn to since I was new in the country.”

Not every story is sad like the cases quoted above. Some would be couples, who are brought up in Aussie culture and way of thinking, detest the dowry custom and its misuse. They have been brought up with a new mindset, thus shaking off these age old customs which turned into abhorrent acts of a society against women.

There have been weddings here where girls and boys have shared their wedding expenses. They take their time, save and plan their life together and don’t even involve parents in their decisions when they marry.

Girls’ parents still want to spend money lavishly saying that they want their daughters to be happy but young girls and boys brought up here think otherwise. They do not want parents to overspend and instead may ask for help in financing the house when they plan to buy, that is if the parents want to. “What the parents can happily afford, rather than putting them in any kind of financial pressure,” said one couple.

“We cut down the guest list which my parents had made, wanting to invite the whole of the town and anyone they knew,” said one girl. “I cut down the list of invitees by half, thus saving a lot. My husband agreed fully with it and we saved a lot of money for our parents.”

“I did not want gold even which most Indian parents want to give to their daughters. I said to mum why waste on gold jewellery which I was not even going to wear. And even the saris. Mum wanted to buy the way when she had married – around two dozen of those saris. I said I only wanted two saris meant for the wedding celebration that I was to wear and that’s that.”

In the end, everyone was happy and we enjoyed the wedding and the functions a lot. There was no pressure on anyone,” she said.

Dr. Majula O’Connor, a psychiatrist and head of the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health in Melbourne, who has data of 1000 domestic violence cases, says, “There are many cases where domestic violence occurred due to financial demands not being met by the girls and their families.”

“There was a petition tabled in Victorian parliament during Ted Baillieu’s time that word ”˜dowry’ be added as a form of economic abuse under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008. This was done in 2014 and followed up in 2015 again.

“We put in a submission to the royal commission that dowry related cases were at least 50 per cent of domestic violence cases; hence ”˜dowry’ be added as one of the causes as part of the Domestic Violence Act. Luckily, the Royal Commission accepted our submission and Daniel Andrews’ government gave a public commitment that they would agree 100 per cent with the Royal Commissions’ recommendations,” O’Connor says.

“Dowry is just not an Indian problem but also of women from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The problem does not exist alone as it is coupled with physical as well as emotional abuse. Its practice must stop.

“We are holding a national conference so that other states also join in our struggle to fight dowry related domestic violence. We try to encourage people in such circumstances to get in touch with police, refer to their GP, lawyer and to get in touch with domestic violence service,” says Manjula.

In Sydney, Harman Foundation also looks after domestic violence cases and says that some cases are there where dowry demands have been made.

“These girls are so scared that at times they just want to make up at any cost even after we have helped them live separately and become independent. They feel, being Indian and also for the sake of their children, women want to make up with the husband,” says Harinder Kaur.

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