It may be prohibited by law (Dowry prohibition Act, 1980) but demanding dowry for deigning to marry a girl from a less fortunate family is considered a normal entitlement of males in society. In villages, the law of the land means little as it is always the rules of the community created by the elders and the influential that matter. No wonder that thousands of women are subject to systematic torture at the hands of their husbands and in-laws when they fail to satisfy dowry demands. Sometimes they are burnt to death, sometimes maimed for life with acid, sometimes they just give up trying to survive the abuse and hang themselves. Those are the stories that make news, though the publicity has done little to stop this medieval practice that makes married life a living hell for so many young women in our country.
Perhaps the story of 20-year-old Parvin from a village in Jaldhaka upazilla, Nilphamari, would not have made the news had she not been rescued or had she succumbed to the torture. But the report sent by The Daily Star's Nilphamari correspondent, of Parvin, the daughter of a day labourer, who was confined to a room with her baby for five days without food, gives an idea of the level of sadism associated with the practice of dowry. The details of Parvin's ordeal reveals the way young women are treated when they enter their husband's home, especially if they are from poor families who believe daughters must be married off at any cost. The illusion that they will be fed better, have a roof over their heads and be safe from sexual predators, and of course dishonour, prompts families to literally give away their daughters to strangers, often along with a hefty payment in cash or kind or both. Sadly, though Parvin's family had given two lakh taka, a refrigerator, bed, steel almirah and a milking cow to her husband and his family, this handsome dowry package was just not enough. Her husband Rokunuzzaman demanded another one lakh taka that she was pressurised to get from her father, and when she couldn't comply she was beaten up by him and his mother. The beatings got worse when she gave birth to a baby girl – a daughter who had no value in her husband's family. To complete the cycle of humiliation, her husband had an affair with another woman and with the encouragement of his mother, went ahead and started living with his mistress. Meanwhile, Parveen was locked up in a room and starved – she thinks her mother-in-law was afraid that she would file a case against her husband for marrying again without her consent.
So what was their plan one shudders to think. Starve her and her baby to death and then dump the bodies in some swamp? Or perhaps they could manage to make it look like a suicide coupled with infanticide? Or just declare her to be mad, of bad character and throw her out on the streets?
Parvin was thankfully blessed by better fortune than many others facing similar torture. Some youths of her village informed the Jaldhaka UNO Rashedul Huq Prodhan who went to the house and freed her and her baby. Thus, a tragedy was averted because of the conscientiousness of a few youths and a UNO. And we know of this story thanks to our Nilphamari correspondent who also managed to take a picture of an emaciated, visibly traumatised Parvin holding on to her little girl. Without that picture, this piece of news would have been blurred out by so many other news stories and would have become just another statistic of 'dowry related repression'.
We, as passive bystanders of this despicable crime, may heave a sigh of relief – at least the woman was saved this time and surely the husband and his mother will be punished by law. But in village culture things are not so clear-cut. Already there are rumours that village elders have urged Parvin's family to compromise, so that that at least the marriage is preserved. So much concern for the sanctity of marriage! No doubt they will try to say that this is the best solution for Parvin and her daughter since she is from a poor family, and that a divorced woman is not looked upon favourably by society. Or maybe there will be an offer of monetary compensation to Parvin's family to keep their mouths shut and refrain from filing a case? These are all too familiar scenarios that ensure that men like Parvin's husband and women like her mother-in-law can get away with their horrendous crimes against helpless young women. Village communities are shockingly indulgent to perpetrators of violence against women and painfully unsympathetic to the victims, precisely because they are women.
So how long are we going to accept the idea that women and girls must be sold at a price in the name of marriage? How long are we going to look the other way when they will be beaten, disfigured, starved or murdered because they couldn't satisfy the greed of their new 'owners'? When will we start shaming the dowry takers and the torturers and save our women from a life of continuous mental and physical trauma?
The prompt action of those young men and the UNO give a glimmer of hope that there are heroes even in those places that are buried in the dark ages where females have the lowest rank in the invisible caste system. These individuals should be honoured for defying the status quo that allows women's basic rights to be constantly violated. We salute these brave souls and pray that every person, in whatever individual capacity they possess, will emulate them and fight against the shameful practice of dowry and dowry related violence that law prohibits without enforcement and tradition condones.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial & Op-ed, The Daily Star.