Dowry disputes confuse fashion designers

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Bridal fashion shows are, for the most part, about creating a fantasy around a beautiful bride in a spectacular dress on her perfect day. For bridal designers around the world, success in selling this fantasy is key to the bottom line.

Customers’ expectations to see positive, ambitious images explain why Pakistani bridal designer Ali Xeeshan surprised many earlier this year when he released a fashion film on Instagram to promote his latest collection of bridal couture, in which the ‘bride’ is a child’s model. She wears a graceful red wedding dress and has tears running down her cheeks as she pulls a heavy cart loaded with goods.

The collection, entitled Numaish (an Urdu term that translates to ‘exhibition’ in English), which was shown as part of Pantene HUM Bridal Couture Week 2021 in Lahore, was part of an initiative Xeeshan in collaboration with UN Women Pakistan undertook to draw attention. to the latter’s ongoing anti-dowry campaign.

A dowry traditionally consists of jewelry, cash, cars, or other belongings that a bride’s family is expected to give to a prospective groom’s family when they are married to compensate them for taking the “burden” of a new daughter.

While it is not popular to talk openly about Pakistan’s ongoing culture of dowry demands, Xeeshan said he felt compelled to speak out against the practice, which he says has seen firsthand the wedding industry. penetrates the land.

I wanted to use the glamor and media hype of the catwalk to … start a conversation.

“There have been times when high-end client weddings were canceled at the last minute because the list of requirements of the grooms’ families had not been met,” he said, adding that in one case, a wedding for which he was already The bridal outfit was “canceled at the eleventh hour because the bride’s family had forgotten to give the groom a shaving set of gold.”

While UN Women Pakistan and others applauded Xeeshan’s use of its fashionable platform to draw attention to the issue, his ‘exhibition’ was not widely welcomed, while others on social media pointed out that, as a bridal designer whose heavily embellished Lehenga ensembles have price tags of up to millions of Pakistani rupees (over $ 6,000), Xeeshan himself also added to the monetary pressure on Pakistani brides.

“Rather than lecturing at a conference or being part of a panel discussion, I wanted to use the glamor and media hype of the catwalk to point out something that wasn’t right and maybe start a conversation,” Xeeshan said in response to this. criticism.

It’s a conversation that many people think should have been a long time ago, where the dowry demands that Xeeshan has encountered as part of his work with wealthy clients are just the tip of the iceberg.

For less affluent brides, the dowry requirement means that they or their parents can be forced to take out loans that are difficult for them to repay, but the consequences of non-payment can be even worse.

An age-old tradition

When dowry expectations are not met, UN Women Pakistan says, the bride and her family could be subjected to intimidation and violence, with women being killed or committing suicide as a result of dowry pressure, so-called “dowry deaths” found in India. . Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran.

While the deadly second wave of the pandemic in India is currently a top priority for most in South Asia, the impact of the dowry system is lasting. With a population more than five times that of Pakistan, India is the country where most women die from dowry-related deaths, with figures from a UN study showing that dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 percent of all women. murders reported annually in India. a share that remained stable between 1999 and 2016.

But the death rate in Pakistan is actually higher per capita. With 2,000 such deaths per year, the death rate for a dowry in Pakistan is 2.45 per 100,000 women, compared to 1.4 per 100,000 women in India.

As depressing as these numbers are, the even more depressing fact is that these dowry death statistics show only the numbers counted, and there are likely to be many more without being classified as such. Part of the problem seems to be that laws aimed at limiting dowry requirements have only made it less overt rather than the practice being stopped.

Ali Xeeshan’s bridal collection against dowry on the catwalk. Ali Xeeshan.

While there have been several federal and provincial laws in Pakistan for decades that legally limit the value of these types of gifts, the giving and receiving of a dowry remains a normal part of the marriage process for many Pakistani families.

“I am an only daughter and I know that my father has been saving for my dowry since I was 14 just because it has always been that way in our family. Often the demand for dowry is unspoken, ”says Mushk Kaleem, a model from Karachi.

The Pakistani Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976, for example, limits the value of dowry and bridal gifts to 5,000 Pakistani rupees ($ 32) and the maximum value of gifts given to the bride and groom to only 100 rupees ($ 0. 65).

While the penalty for violating any provision of the law is imprisonment for up to six months, a fine of up to 10,000 rupees ($ 64) or both, UN Women Pakistan says these laws are rarely enforced.

Farwa Kazmi, a prominent Pakistani model, said that while dowry at her own wedding wasn’t even a consideration, not all of her peers are so happy.

“I remember being shocked when a very good friend of mine got married and her parents were collecting her dowry. She was very well educated and came from a very prosperous family, but somehow her family thought she would be more respected by her in-laws if she brought a hefty dowry, ”said Kazmi.

Handle hidden requests

Mohsin Naveed Ranjha is a young Pakistani designer with a significant following in Punjab province and especially in his hometown Gujranwala. He says that when a dowry shows up among his affluent clientele, it is more often implied than openly discussed.

“The groom’s mother may hint that her son only likes a certain kind of car or that he wants a large TV in his room. The bride’s family may be told to meet certain dowry requirements because it is ‘tradition’ and the groom’s family will feel humiliated if they don’t, ”said Ranjha.

I know my father has been saving for my dowry since I was fourteen just because it has always been that way in our family.

Rizwan Beyg from Karachi, one of Pakistan’s most famous designers who also dressed Princess Diana says he has never encountered clients who openly argue that they suffer from dowry demands, but that a more subtle expectation may persist. “None of my clients have ever said a dowry to me, so I can’t say for sure they all suffer from it [but] I guess it’s still a habit in some families, ”he said.

Others argue that dowry demand may be more open in more traditional regions, with the practice less obvious in major markets such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad compared to smaller towns in Punjab province (where Mohsin Naveed Ranjha and Ali Xeeshan have a significant company).

“In the interior I have the feeling that dowry is still more common. Even the very wealthy lead a traditional life and believe in age-old cultural practices such as the giving and taking of dowry, ”said bridal designer Khadijah Shah.

A bridal look from Farah Talib Aziz.  Farah Talib Aziz.

A bridal look from Farah Talib Aziz. Farah Talib Aziz.

While the continuation of dowry expectations is disappointing to critics of the practice, the fact that dowry has become a less obvious phenomenon also points to the declining popularity of the tradition in many areas where it would have previously been more common and overt.

This gives many hope that the practice will gradually fade into obscurity as middle-class parents in Pakistan and the wider South Asia region choose to invest in their daughter’s marriage as an act of celebrating their daughter and her soon-to-be marriage, instead of an expectation from the groom. side that they should be compensated for adding a daughter to their family.

“Several years ago, it was more common for mothers and daughters to comment when ordering clothes that so-and-so outfit will be set aside as the girl’s dowry,” said Maliha Aziz, the CEO of wedding clothing brand Farah Talib Aziz. . “Now attitudes have changed and we are seeing parents placing orders for their daughter’s restocking because they want to do so,” she added.

Designer Mohsin Naveed Ranjha is also clear that while he sees dowry requests as part of his business, it is “happening less and less often.” He also added that he saw the emergence of grooms who oppose dowry, with a bride’s family ordering clothes on behalf of the groom, expecting the gift to be viewed favorably, but discovers that he does not want to partake to accepting a dowry.

There have been times when the bride’s family ordered a traditional one Sherwani for the groom, who cancels the order the next day because the groom wants to pay for his clothes himself, ”he explained.

While this is certainly a sign of progress, the abolition of the dowry tradition may not come soon enough for some Pakistani designers.

“[I can no longer] keep silent about a cruelty that is accepted as an inevitable reality in our region, ”said Xeeshan.

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