04/05/2011, 00.00

When wives are set on fire for their dowry

by Nozrul Islam
At least 249 women were killed in 2010. Out of anger or vengeance, husbands throw kerosene on their wives and set them on fire. The problem is widespread despite the fact that Islamic law, which is in place in Bangladesh, requires would-be husbands to pay a price for their future wives.
Dhaka (AsiaNews) – At least 249 women were killed in 2010 for their dowry, this according to the Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR). Whether out of anger or for vengeance, husbands often beat their wives or set them on fire with kerosene, sometimes with the complicity of their families. In some cases, women are strangled and then hanged to simulate a suicide. The figures are incomplete though because many cases are not reported. In fact, if in 2007, there were 145 recorded cases, dropping to 114 in 2008 and 109 in 2009, the numbers last year showed a marked reversal. At the same time, the BSEHR also reported that last year at least 122 women were tortured.

Under the existing dowry system, a bride’s family must pay her future groom a sum of money. The practice first appeared some 50 years ago. Before that, would-be husbands had to pay instead a ‘bride price’ to the woman’s family in accordance with Islamic law. The change appears to be the result of an imbalance in the country’s demography, as there were more women than men of marriageable age at that time. For example in 1950, the population of women of marriageable age was 10 per cent more than that of eligible men; by 1975, the percentage had risen to 43.

However, men do not necessarily demand a dowry before marriage; in some cases, they do it afterwards to assert their authority over their wives when the latter do not obey. Violence can ensue in a number of situations in a society where tradition places the husband in a position of superiority.

Not all families are willing or financially capable of paying a dowry for their daughters, a situation that some husbands see as an insult that calls for vengeance.

This kind of tragedy occurs in both big cities and small villages, among upper middle classes as well as the poor. A few months ago for instance, a university professor was killed over her dowry.

For affluent people, the dowry is a matter of prestige, and a way to ensure that daughters can pick a rich husband. For the poor, it is a real hardship though because many families do not have the wherewithal to do to marry off their daughters.

In 1980, a law banning dowries was adopted. Since then, it has been changed two or three times. Nevertheless, it is in not enforced, partly because of police negligence, partly because of threats from grooms’ families. The law itself is also very vague and provides little guidance for enforcement. This ends up penalising the weakest party, i.e. women.

Even so, Bangladesh has signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the 30-article United Nations treaty that defines discrimination against women and sets out ways to fight it.  

However, Bangladesh has not accepted Article 16, which requires measures to eliminate discrimination against women in matters relating to marriage and family, because it contradicts Islamic law.

The dowry has also other consequences. First of all, poor families end up taking on debt to raise enough money to pay for their daughters’ dowry. In some cases, parents end up not sending their daughters to school to save money for their dowry or because they see education as something their daughters would lose after marriage. Finally, early marriage (two out of five women marry between 15 and 17) has serious consequences because of early pregnancies, which are often followed by deep depressions as well as psychological and physical violence.

For things to change, the law must change to make sure that it is actually enforced. Work must be done to change social attitudes and political will as well.

Religious institutions have a key role to play in all this. Unfortunately, it is well known that mosque leaders are not concerned by the practice even if it is contrary to the Qur‘an.

There are some exceptions. Every year, a Muslim spiritual group organises a mass gathering that draws millions of people. During the event, hundreds of couples get married, publicly announcing their intention to renounce the dowry and wed in accordance to Islamic principles.

This shows that at least one group is aware of the dire consequences of a problem too often ignored by most mosque leaders. More generally, conservative Muslims religious leaders have opposed changes to the law itself.

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