Ganderbal, Indian-administered Kashmir – It is said that, 750 years ago, a respected Sufi saint named Syed Baba Abdul Razzaq came all the way from Baghdad to this central part of Indian-administered Kashmir, seated at the foothills of Guttil Bagh, to preach and promote Islam. He ultimately founded the small village of Baba Wayil – population today, 6,000 – and was later laid to rest here in the community of people whose main trade is the cultivation of walnut trees and the weaving of pashmina shawls.
The majority of people in this small village are of the Shah caste – Muslims who believe they are directly descended from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad.
Surrounded by mountains and lush, green trees, it takes around two hours to reach Baba Wayil from the district capital, Ganderbal City, which is 28km (17 miles) away. The roads are poor and there is very little in the way of public transport.
Many of the homes in the village are newly constructed but there remain a few older mud houses, which have mostly been abandoned.
People meet each other in the fields or at the small village market. Women can often be seen chatting at the spring from where they draw fresh water for drinking.
Here, people live ordinary lives, much like those of other small communities in Indian-administered Kashmir, but there is one major difference.
This village has rejected the notion of lavish weddings and has placed an outright ban on dowries, in a bid to return to a simpler time more in keeping with Islamic tradition as taught by the Sufi saint all those centuries ago.
For a time, weddings here were much more elaborate and expensive affairs – in keeping with the cultural traditions of the region. But stories abound of families being forced into debt to meet the ever-increasing expectations for celebrations and dowries.
The marriage dowry – paid by the bride’s family to the groom’s – has long been an important part of Indian culture. Dowries can be paid in cash, but also in gold or home equipment (TVs, washing machines, refrigerators and furniture) that is given to the bride by her family to take with her to her new family. It is not unusual for middle-class families in India to spend around one million rupees ($13,340) on a bride’s dowry to reach an agreement for their daughter to be married.
Suhail Rasool Mir, a senior sociology researcher at the University of Kashmir, describes the dowry system as “an intricate sociological phenomenon” that can lead to the “barbaric” mistreatment of women.
The village sarpanch (head), 45-year-old Altaf Shah, drives an old car that he is willing to stop to pick up travellers heading into the village.
A lean man with a trimmed beard, he speaks softly but passionately about the issue of dowry. The anti-dowry system is his priority and he wants people around the world to know about it – and adopt it.
“Women entering into marriages with dowries had to face many physical and psychological problems because of the demands made by their in-laws,” he explains.
But the rituals and customs around marriage in Baba Wayil had not always been so burdensome for families of brides. Altaf says that in the mid-19th century, marriages in the village were simple affairs – with no dowry paid to the groom’s family at all.
The tradition back then was that 11 rupees would be placed in a glass of water by the groom’s family as a token of love on the occasion of “catchment”, which happens before engagement when families meet to agree and arrange a marriage between their children. It is hard to convert this amount into today’s values as inflation has only been recorded in India since the late 1950s. However, it is thought to be worth around 500 to 1,000 rupees in today’s money ($6.50 – $13).
At a couple’s engagement, 51 rupees (around $30 to $40 in today’s money) were given to the bride by the groom’s family. At the nikkah – the Muslim marriage ceremony when the marriage contract is signed – the groom’s father was expected to give 40kg of rice and 30kg of meat to the bride’s father to provide a meal for the wedding guests.
Nowadays, hardly a day passes without a story about a dowry death appearing in Indian newspapers. Excessive expectations, particularly from the families of grooms, can lead to abuse and violence towards women when they are not met. Kashmir is no exception. While the dowry system in India originated in Hindu culture, it has been widely adopted by Muslims and other faiths in the country, as well.
The dowry system has made women into objects and the marriages are treated like a business dealing, where you exchange things rather than love and respect.
According to a 2019 report from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), law enforcement agencies have made only limited progress in investigating such crimes against women in Kashmir. In 2019, there were 3,069 reported cases of violent crime against women, including rape, sexual assault and domestic violence in Kashmir – although it is not clear how many of these were related to dowry issues – and eight dowry-related deaths.
It is believed that the economic hardship brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse for women in Kashmir, with anecdotal reports of brides being set alight because their families have not met dowry expectations in the past year.
“There are many instances of dowry victims being burned alive or beaten to death,” explains Mir, the sociologist.
As a result, many families in the state have stopped allowing their daughters to marry. In 2014, the average age for women in Kashmir to marry was just over 25 – a full three years older than the average for India as a whole – according to figures from the Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Another study, carried out by a non-government organisation, Tehreek e Fala-Ul-Muslimeen, also found that some 50,000 women remained unmarried at the age of 40, as a direct result of the onerous dowry demands associated with marriage.
“The give-and-take process in the dowry system is a social practice and it has become a social evil that is turning out to be a dangerous trend,” says Altaf, who is a tailor by profession and was elected head of the village last year.
“Women generally don’t speak out about the demands being made on them by their in-laws that perpetuate violence, oppression and torture, and murder of a woman. Many girls, whose parents could not afford the demanded dowry have had to succumb to the pressures and either attempt suicide or divorce. They face physical and psychological problems by the demands made by their in-laws,” he adds.
One family broke the rules – ‘nobody would dare talk to them’
The leadership of the village is semi-formal. It is made up of the sarpanch, who is elected to the position, and around three other unelected elders including the imam.
In 1985, alarmed by stories of violence against women because of the dowry system, the then-leaders decided to take action. They agreed to new guidelines – forbidding lavish weddings and dowries – and circulated them around the village. They stipulated that anyone breaking the new rules would be banned from prayers at the mosque and would be refused permission to be buried in the village graveyard. As a result, demanding a dowry is considered a serious crime and villagers shun anyone who does it.
Instead, the leaders decreed, the village would go back to the traditional system of marriage rituals according to the teachings of Islam, explains the current imam, Basheer Ahmed Shah.
Altaf remembers what happened to one family who refused to go along with the new rules. “The family was boycotted and nobody would dare talk to them,” he says. “Later, they had to leave the village altogether.”
In 2004, the elders of the village drafted a new document, signed by the imam and three elders, in order to formalise the rule introduced in 1985. The document has been carefully preserved and is kept at the home of the imam.
The document reiterated the 1985 verbal decree that the groom’s family should not demand anything from the bride’s side. Instead, the groom’s family may present the bride with a maximum of 50,000 rupees ($670) – a sum that has remained the same ever since. An agreement over the amount is reached between the groom and the Wali, who acts as a guardian for the bride during the nikkah ceremony performed by the village imam. The gift does not have to be paid in cash if the groom’s family is poor – it can be paid in material goods instead. The bride’s family is not required to pay anything.
This sum is made up of a maximum 20,000 rupees ($268) as “mehr”, which is the gift given directly to the bride and which is to be treated as her property alone; 20,000 rupees as “wardan” to be used by the bride for her wedding clothes; and 10,000 rupees ($134) for any other bridal expenses including 3,000 rupees ($40) for the bridal veil.
‘Dowries have made women into objects’
According to Basheer Ahmed Shah, the imam, there has not been a single case of domestic violence, suicide or fighting among in-laws since the anti-dowry rule was introduced. Villagers describe being deeply alarmed by reports of women being killed or committing suicide in other parts of the country.
Furthermore, the problem of women being unable to get married because their families are too poor to pay dowries has been eradicated, says Basheer Shah.
“Getting married at an early age is a blessing but the high demands of dowry have put a stop to early marriages in the rest of the country,” says 24-year-old Raj Shah, who is due to get married soon.
Said Javed Shah, 32, agrees: “It was my ardent desire to perform the nikkah in a very simple way.” He has been married for five years. “I didn’t demand or receive anything from my wife. If there had been demands from either side, things could have turned ugly.”
Altaf Shah’s father, Haji Ghulam Nabi Shah, was one of the architects of the ban on dowries. While watching television in his son’s home, he speaks in a clear, loud voice, explaining: “The people in the village are simple-living and God-fearing.
“The locals follow the customs and traditions of the village with zest and zeal. In present times, the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the new generation; so we often conduct congregational gatherings, events and meetings to make people aware of the consequences of this evil system,” he continues.
“The support we have from the youth of our village is remarkable and in these woeful times our youth is an inspiration to the generations to come by setting examples of simple and dowry-free weddings.”
Altaf Shah’s oldest daughter, Iqra Altaf, 25, is now getting married under the dowry-free system. Iqra says she does not want a mehr of more than 900 rupees ($12). “Dowry is a social evil and we don’t want to spread this evil door to door by promoting it,” she says. “I belong to a village where the dowry is being boycotted since the time of our ancestors. As a result, we have freedom of choice and we enjoy our rights freely. I personally feel proud to be part of this society and culture.”
At the home she currently shares with her parents, she is preparing for an evening driving lesson with her father. She takes lessons every day and regards being able to drive as an important part of a woman’s independence. “Driving has become the most important part of one’s life in our village, where one has to wait for long hours for the local buses to reach the different corners of Kashmir!”
As her marriage approaches, Iqra says she is mostly busy with household chores and preparing for her final university exams. She has spent a lot less time than many women might on the marriage preparations because it will not be a huge celebration.
She explains how the women of the village support the dowry ban. “The dowry system has made women into objects and the marriages are treated like a business dealing, where you exchange things rather than love and respect,” she says.
Her marriage has been arranged but she was able to meet and approve her fiancé before it was decided. He is from the same village and owns a cloth shop in the village market. Iqra hopes to become a teacher at the school in the village.
She says other young villagers like her want to carry the message to the next generation. The anti-dowry system is made for the girls especially, she says. “We support it with our whole being.”
Iqra, who is studying for a degree in commerce, believes educating women should be a priority in every society. “That’s how we can stop social evils like the dowry system,” she explains.
Many of the young people of the village are enrolled in colleges and universities across India and Kashmir.
Villagers put the success of their anti-dowry stance down to the equal importance attributed to educating girls and boys.
The men and boys in the village also receive instruction about why it is so important to avoid the dowry system.
“We compete with boys if they secure higher grades than us. Girls are shining out in the village when it comes to education,” says 21-year-old Saima Shah, who has come to visit her close friend Iqra. Saima is due to marry in a week.
“We are not being forced into anything. We have freedom of choice and we enjoy our rights freely. I personally feel proud to be part of this society and culture.”
Women entering into marriages with dowries had to face physical and psychological problems because of the demands made by their in-laws.
Saima recently graduated from college and agreed to marry after her family found a match for her. She plans to continue her studies after her wedding and says her soon-to-be husband has been supportive from the start. “A person should marry whenever he or she feels [they want] to and women can continue their job or education after marriage in this village without pressure. In our village, practising simple weddings over big fat weddings has relieved the burden on our parents. ”
According to the traditions and guidelines of the village, her wedding will be a simple one. It will take place at her parents’ home and only a few people will attend. On the day, the groom will visit the bride’s home, bringing just four people with him. Saima says her bridal outfit will be a frock shalwaar and a veil. There will be no fancy bridal dress which would be expensive and which many people, unable to afford to buy one, must rent instead.
“My in-laws have not pressurised me, they also want a simple wedding and it is a mutual decision,” she explains. “There is no dowry demanded from my in-laws.”
Another resident of the village, 28-year-old Meenu Neelofar, who works in the government floriculture department in the district capital of Ganderbal and who has been married for three years, similarly says, “There is no pressure from my in-laws’ side that I’ve to quit my job after marriage. I am a working woman and I still continue to work after my marriage, I have their full support.”
Spreading the word
Iqra and her father say they hope they can spread the idea of banning dowries to other communities in Kashmir.
“We have lit this candle and with its light, our purpose is to illuminate and spread this light to the different nooks and corners of the Kashmir valley,” says Altaf.
In recent years, three girls have married outside of the village. “We asked the other families to know our tradition of marriages first,” says Saima. “Later, if you want to give anything to the bride you are free to give but don’t expect anything from her, as the life works here according to the rules of our anti-dowry system.”
When village men marry outside of the village, he says, “we do the same with them – we follow our tradition strictly.”