Last month a member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly, Rashida Riffat, tabled a bill to ban dowry. There were some very appreciable salient points in its contents; such has limiting expenses on wedding ceremony to Rs 75,000 rupees and ‘beverages only’ Baraat and Nikkah ceremonies. As per the social media reaction, it was appreciated in terms of its principle. But like the shortcomings of social media, it has the potential of falling under its own weight when it comes to implementation, right in the vacuum between the cyber world and reality of our society. Those spearheading the law should not be misguided by its reaction.

This is a law. If it does materialize, it will also have some umbrella pulled on from the National Assembly, in the time to come. It strikes the core of our societal culture and traditions. A number of legislations have been passed in the past, whether it is the West Pakistan Dowry (Prohibition of Display) Act (1967), Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act (1976) or the recommendation of law commission in 90s, updating the charges and limits. Previously dowry has been tried to be restricted to Rs 30,000 and bridal gift was restricted to Rs 50,000.

So we do have precedents on the issue in terms of legislation. These legislations targeted total expenditure on a marriage, excluding the value of dowry, bridal gifts and presents, but including the expenses on Mehndi, Baraat and Walima. Dowry itself was only recognized within nine months from the date of Nikkah or Rukhsati. The Dowry and Marriage Gifts (Restriction) Bill (2008) did, however, split the restriction and demand for dowry, with a sweeping action of making its demand illegal. Even if willfully given under restriction, it was not allowed to be publicly showcased any more. Much of dowry related legislations were also done to stop corruption of government office-bearers, at their or their children’s weddings, in name of gifts and presents. However, the proposed bill of 2008 from Senate failed to pass in the National Assembly.

Dowry is mostly prevalent in the subcontinent. Even though its deeply ingrained in our cultural and traditional roots, in modern times it is perceived as a naked buy-out of a marriage proposal.

While India has put a ban on dowry in Punjab, the non-resident Indians abroad have gone to such extent that they have tried to implement such legislation in their resident countries, such as Australia, to protect the affected victims at home. But the law itself is creating issues for men in the equation, due to the misuse by disgruntled women.

We are all aware about the downside of dowry, but my question is different: will it be feasible and even ethically applicable to do so? Let alone doing it in flow with and for the sake of populist policies.

The government usually formulates two kinds of laws, those that are too good to be implemented and those which seem potentially popular. Both end up creating a nuisance.

Here, dowry is one of the elements on which our marriages are based. Crudely, at times it may seem like a business transaction, but it is an unhinged element of wedding tradition. In Pakistani Punjab, initially the one dish policy was introduced along with the restriction of ceremony timing beyond 10 pm. Yet the one dish did not pull down the expenses in private ceremonies and the high per person charges at expensive halls continued. One dish policy in its gross form went on to leech the expenses in name of guest list. Here as it went higher, so did the expenses! Will the government also go on to limit the number of guests to a single ceremony as well? Today, you can’t even book a wedding hall for Rs 75,000.

Most of all our desi wedding ceremonies are not just Nikah and Rukhsati. They start with a proposal party and engagement ceremony, then go on to weeklong of Dholki, Mehdi, pre-bridal showers and bridal showers, bachelor parties, etc. Then comes the Baraat and Nikkah and Mun Dikhai and Rukhsati… The climax comes with Walima and the after-parties, and between them much of the expenses go unaccounted.

But where is this all coming from! Well the recent Gallup Survey in Pakistan has reported in January, a number of aspects of our public perception. Within the past six years, there has been an improvement of public attitude towards dowry, but limited to an increase of 3% ‘who would not like to give and take dowry’ on their child’s wedding. Among different classes, the practice still persists, where 71% of the educated elite still give dowry, and are ahead in doing so, among all classes. Astonishingly, 56% people in Pakistan believe that it is impossible to have a girl married without dowry.

So, while it may seem judicious to take this decision to ban dowry as the ‘next step’, will it help to challenge the system of belief where dowry is considered as a social statement as well as social right?

I believe that our government has to work on changing peoples’ attitude and behaviour towards dowry, whether it be through mass education, advertisements, public forums, dramas and films. But it certainly cannot be helped by the waving the stick of legislation, as it may miss the target – yet again.