Three major types of dowry practices exist in the Muslim world.
1. The groom's family demands money or hefty gifts from the bride's family,
2. The bride's family requires money from the groom or his family.
3. The groom offers a mutually agreed upon gift to the bride at the time of the wedding. It is known as Mehr.
The first type is widely prevalent in the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent. Parents who want to ward off their daughters must meet the groom's family; otherwise, the chances of solemnizing the marriage might diminish. Sometimes, the girl's family voluntarily offers tremendous gifts and abundant money to a well-qualified groom to knot the matrimonial ties for their daughters' better future.
Obviously, in either case, the groom gets paid to accept the bride as his wife. It is a kind of business deal where the groom makes promises to provide the girl home and a haven if he gets adequate monetary rewards.
The second type is most common in Middle Eastern countries and Africa. The groom has to come up with specific money or other resources to offer the bride's family to finalize the marriage. In this transaction, the roles interchange. Instead of the bride's family, it is the groom who pays to marry the girl. It is also a business deal where girls' skills, to put it crudely, often determine her price.
The third type is also the most abused practice. The groom gives either a token present to the bride claiming it to be an example of the given to Bibi Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, when the fourth Caliph Ali married her. Most of the time, the promised gift in cash and kind rarely paid to the bride.
There are exceptions, but many people belonging to all spheres of life follow either of the practices mentioned above.
The irony is that most people condemn these practices, yet they never stop them. Girls are advised not to marry the person, who demands dowry, and boys are asked not to seek dowry, but a few are willing to change this age-old custom of dowry. Even when such marriages occur, the groom's family reminds the girl that she did not bring enough dowry.
Why is this happening? What are the practical ways to stop it?
It is happening in the Muslim communities because of the unjust status of women. No matter what we say from the pulpit and in our sermons, the fact is that women are not considered equal—often considered a stigma, a source of shame, and strangers in their own homes because they have to leave it one day. The sooner they are married off, the more relieved the family feels. How many a time you would hear the expression at the time of the wedding: "Alhamdulillah, a great burden is over."
If there is a delay in marriage, they are often considered a bad omen for the family. Everyone in the family circles views them as a burden because of their financial dependence on their families.
It makes no difference whether they devote their entire life serving their parents, husband, husband's family, and children; they are dependent.
This dowry culture would continue to exist unless women become financially independent and unless our families change their perspectives towards their daughters.
Our daughters are always our daughters, no matter who they marry. They are not a burden. They are not a stigma or shame. Even if they commit mistakes, they will remain our daughters and not abandon them for their wrongs.
They are the pillars of our family. We do not break our relations with them once they wed off. Their welfare and well being is as much our concern as it is the concern of their husbands. They are part of us, and they can not separate from us. It makes no difference whether they are married at a younger or older age or not married at all. They are never a burden.
Women desire a home of their own, where they can live dreams and create a space of dignity for them and their children. Every woman wants to prove that she contributes to human growth and progress and feels autonomous and independent. Often to fulfill this dream, she goes miles. She compromises. She accepts abuse, humiliation, and the sufferings at the hands of her husband or husband's family.
From the perspective of dignified existence, she should not suffer all these pains. Every woman has an independent personality that must never be compromised, even if it means breaking off relations with her husband. But she is forced to compromise because she knows that her parents view her as a burden, and her siblings would not accept her back as a divorcee.
Her dignity and independence can come through her financial freedom. Once she can sustain herself financially and make contributions in terms of money, no one can demean her. Most families do not recognize her role in raising a family and focusing on home building. Those who view her as a burden will change their views, and those who demand dowry for her hand would think twice before asking it.
It is the only practical way. Sermons have not worked. The implementation of legal safeguards for women also depends on the will of a largely male-dominated society. One of the biggest obstacles in women's financial independence comes from the religious clergy that does not want a woman to have education in sciences other than the one they specify for women such as sewing, cooking, or home building. They are so opposed to women's advancement in education. Some societies view their demand to drive automobiles a threat to God's oneness.
Even if girls get educated despite the clergy's opposition, they are not allowed to work along with men, as in their views, this would increase immodesty in society.
Does the Quran consider marriage an institution to serve men only? Does the Quran promote dowry? Does the Quran define mehr as a price for girls? Does the Quran view daughters as a burden? Does the Quran prohibit women from working or running their businesses? Everyone would say no to these questions. Yet few would demonstrate that they are willing to accept the Quranic perspectives.
The Quran does not view marriage as a business transaction. It defines marriage as a contractual relationship between two equals to create peace based on love, compassion, and mercy. It does not say that it is only the mother who is responsible for the upbringing of children. On the contrary, it places the responsibility upon both parents to ensure that household responsibilities are shared. The Quran views mehr as a gift to the bride as a goodwill gesture.
The Quran does not view daughters as a burden. It views them as strong pillars of the family. The Prophet once said that anyone who raises daughters well with full responsibility is guaranteed paradise. If the paradise lies under the feet of the mother, it also is secured through raising daughters. Their presence is a source of mercy to families.
The Quran does not prohibit women from working or running their businesses. Sura Ahzab defines the principle of gender equality in explaining the roles of men and women. The involvement of women in public life during the Prophet's time is a testimony of the Quranic principles.
In fact, for reasons best known to a male chauvinist clergy, the divine message about women has been twisted to serve the male interests. Dowry is a manifestation of the corruption of divine guidance.
One can tackle the menace of dowry effectively tackled when we bring about a change in our attitude towards women. We have to remove obstacles in their way of progress and give them the same freedom we seek ourselves and ensure that they get the best possible education in all spheres of life.
When we treat them equal and dignified, no one will dare demand dowry for marrying them, and no one would offer money to their parents to wed them.
Unless and until that happens, our daughters would continue to suffer from the daily humiliation at the hands of a society that prioritizes customs than to reason or to the divine guidance. It is a sad situation, but it is the reality that we cannot escape.
However, there is one more solution to fight off the dowry menace. The clergy should refuse to solemnize the marriages where the groom's family is known to have asked dowry. But you need a different type of clergy to take such a bold stand, and in our contemporary religious culture, this will not happen quickly.