Sadaf Farooqui differentiates between the the cultural practices and the Islamic guidelines on dowry, highlighting the true attributes and meaning of Mahr.
It all starts with the birth of a girl. “And when the news of (the birth of) a female (child) is brought to any of them, his face becomes dark, and he is filled with inward grief.” (An-Nahl 16:58)
Preference for sons prevails mostly in India, China, Pakistan and the Gulf states. Deliberate abortion of female fetuses is not rare: every year, approximately a million female abortions are reported in India alone. “When the female (infant) buried alive (as the pagan Arabs used to do) is questioned: ‘For what sin was she killed?’” (At-Takwir 81:8-9)
It’s not just men, who perceive the births of girls this way; women are also perpetrators of the ‘sons-are-better’ ideology for several reasons. One of them is the anticipation of a future financial burden on the father. A girl has to be provided for by her guardian; she does not mature into a breadwinner. Rather, she goes into another family. Thanks to the Hindu custom of ‘Jahaiz’ or dowry, marrying a girl off after she has been raised can be an even bigger hurdle. The father starts stressing years in advance, about how he will provide each of his daughters with a ‘proper’ dowry.
Dowry is an amount of money, goods or possessions given to the bride by her family at the time of her marriage, in order to attract a good husband. All of which, in effect, become the property of the husband or his family after marriage.
In actuality, the matter of fathers giving their daughters monetary gifts, property, enormous wedding feasts or furnished homes should be left to their own discretion. However, girls are given dowries because they are deliberately left out of the family inheritance. Although, Islam enjoins that each heir be given his share of inheritance - male or female - and prohibits ostentation, extravagance and unlawful acquisition of wealth. To some extent the custom of dowry involves all three of these vices.
A gift is something someone happily and willingly gives; it is not demanded. When Jahaiz is demanded by the bridegroom’s family, it’s a way of acquiring wealth by twisting another’s arm. How can one expect a marriage to be blessed, when at its initiation it best resembles a business transaction, in which each party tries to maximize its own profit?
Even if the bridegroom’s family wants to adhere to Islamic injunctions and renounces dowry, at times the bride’s female family members insist on the custom. The absence of a grand trousseau and an impressive banquet displayed to their social circle is a sign of disgrace for them because: “What will people think?”
Hearsay at weddings involves typical questions: “How many dresses have been made for her trousseau?”, “How much did the crockery cost?”, “How many jewellery sets did she get?”
The bride is sometimes trained to treat everything provided by her in-laws with disdain. She starts her married life expecting only her parents ‘proudly’ provide her with everything she needs. Gifts given by in-laws are usually discarded or not used.
In Islam, it is the husband who provides for his wife after marriage. He has to give her a monetary gift known as dower or Mahr, which the Quran describes as a Fareedah – an obligatory due. “And give to the women (whom you marry) their Mahr (obligatory bridal-money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage) with a good heart; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it, and enjoy it without fear of any harm (as Allah has made it lawful).” (An-Nisa 4:4)
“All others are lawful, provided you seek (them in marriage) with Mahr (bridal-money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage) from your property, desiring chastity, not committing illegal sexual intercourse, so with those of whom you have enjoyed sexual relations, give them their Mahr as prescribed.” (An-Nisa 4:24)
Whenever a Companion wanted to get married, Prophet Muhammad (saw) would ask him, what he had which could serve as Mahr. When Ali (rta) was marrying Fatimah (rta), the Prophet (saw) went so far as to help him provide modest household items for her, as he was Ali’s (rta) guardian. This proves that if a Muslim bridegroom needs help in setting up a home for marriage, he should be helped, especially by his own guardian.
Sometimes the bride’s family demands an exorbitant Mahr for her, ignoring the spirit of Ihsan endorsed by Islam. This makes it difficult for younger men to marry, thus opening the door to such evils as dating and fornication.
Prevalence of the dowry custom not only jeopardizes the lives of future female infants and makes marriage difficult for girls in general, but also becomes a menace to low-income groups. Despite the existence of laws that prohibit excessive dowry, it is not unusual to find every mother under severe pressure of ‘honorably marrying off’ her daughters. She goes asking door-to-door for monetary help, incurring huge debts to throw lavish wedding feasts and live up to societal expectations.
What can we do to eradicate this custom? In 1976, the government of Pakistan passed a law - the Dowry and Bridal Gifts Restriction Act - that prohibited dowry above a specific amount. Sadly, to little effect. Existence of laws can only be effective, if people have Taqwah. The change can come about only if Muslim families truly fear Allah (swt) when performing marriages. How?
By giving precedence to piety over materialism, Allah’s (swt) pleasure over people’s expectations, and fully trusting in Allah (swt) for girl’s well-being after marriage.
Not asking questions about dowry when attending a wedding.
Remembering that girls are provided for and protected by the Best of Providers - Allah (swt).
Even if a few marriages take place with an average Mahr and no dowry, the bridal couple accepting an initially mediocre standard of living can set a trend for others to follow.
Maybe then the birth of a daughter would bring genuine happiness.