Calculated cruelty over dowry

Calculated cruelty over dowry
PHOTO: ST

The fact that 13 women have been killed and 17 physically abused over dowry in Bangladesh in January and February of 2017 does little to rattle us. Neither do the figures of 107 deaths, five suicides, and 94 physical abuse victims in all of 2016. These are, alas, just numbers that we forget soon after reading them online.

But when you hear of a woman who, last week, was chained to a bed and beaten up with sticks and hot iron rods, almost forced to swallow poison, and salt and chilli powder rubbed on her wounds, it forces your eyes open to the horror thousands of women have faced and continue to do so.

This isn't a vague commentary on the backward culture of human barter that somehow manages to prevail in our "progressive", "developing" society. It's a response to how a woman - a human being - was tortured almost to the end of her life in a cold, calculated way by her husband in her own home, with her in-laws as accomplices.

Thirty-five year old Taslima Begum had already paid a dowry of Tk 2 lakh, along with gold jewellery, at the time of her wedding to Badal Mridha some 16 years ago. Apparently dissatisfied even 16 years after the marriage, the husband had been asking for more money from his wife's family.

When they failed to comply, Badal Mridha and his family started torturing Taslima, to the point where she had to flee to Dhaka to get treatment. She came back home on April 25, and having returned without the additional dowry, she faced the worst form of physical abuse imaginable. She was fortunately rescued by her parents and taken to the hospital with severe bruises and burns all over her body.

Firstly, if this marriage had taken place 16 years ago in around 2001, under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 that was applicable at the time, Badal Mridha would be punishable by an imprisonment of up to five years, or a fine, or both. Given that dowry-related torture is still a very stubborn part of our present, however, it's no surprise that Badal was able to demand dowry without any repercussions nearly a decade ago.

But the beginning of this year saw the establishment of the Dowry Prohibition Act 2017. Under this law, anyone who causes critical injuries to a woman over dowry will face 12 years' imprisonment, along with an additional fine. Given that Badal Mridha has already been arrested after a case was filed against him on Friday, we hope that he and his family are dealt with the highest form of punishment for the horrors that they unleashed on Taslima.

But the question remains - will they comprehend the magnitude of their crimes even if they are punished? Will the punishment simply push them to regret their own fate at getting caught, or will they truly understand why their actions were wrong? If they were capable of that thought process, wouldn't they have refrained from hurting Taslima in the first place?

The news reports available so far highlight not only the incident, but also the nature of the incident that took place. Taslima wasn't tormented in one brief, impulsive moment of fury. She was abused over a long period of time - almost the entire length of her marriage from what has been reported. And on the night of the final incident, Badal Mridha went to the trouble of preparing his weapons by dousing them in fire and tortured his wife through a series of horrifying acts that left stamps of trauma and cruelty all over her body. It takes an extremely sadistic streak to cause this much pain to a person.

This brings back the same questions that were raised when the Dowry Prohibition Act 2017 was passed earlier this year. It isn't enough to simply pass laws prohibiting such cruelty. Neither is it enough to enforce those laws once the crimes have been committed (although that is crucial).

We must be in a position to prevent these crimes in the first place. We must shatter the sense of self-entitlement that allows husbands and in-laws to demand payment for marriage, and to inflict wounds - physical or mental - on their spouses when their demands aren't met. We must cement the notion of women's rights, and human rights, into the minds of those who still believe in the legitimacy of dowry and the superiority of husbands over wives.

Girls and women must be made to understand that it is unacceptable when their husbands hit them and that they have every right to revolt against it. They must be informed of the laws and resources that are in place to protect them when they need help. The duty of informing them falls on the media as much as it does on the government.

Educational reform and social awareness must be strengthened and taken to the doorsteps of more and more people across the country, particularly in villages and low-income urban societies where archaic patriarchal cultures are practised the most. These are weapons that, had they been used effectively, might have stopped Taslima's parents from agreeing to pay a dowry for their daughter's marriage. It might even have stopped them from marrying Taslima into such a household. Most importantly, it might have discouraged Taslima from returning to her husband after every episode of torture that she experienced.

This incident is likely to leave a trail of repercussions. How long will it take until Taslima recovers from the mental trauma? Will she receive psychological help, and even financial help, to be able to move on from this marriage? Will she be protected from the social prejudice that women of broken marriages have to face in a resiliently backward society? And what impacts will these events leave on the minds of her children? Will her son, who it seems was the one who helped rescue Taslima through a phone call from Dhaka, grow up to reject his father's ideologies?

We can hope that the answer to all of the above is "yes". Reality, however, often falls far short of what should ideally happen.

We can hope that the culprits of this crime are served with due punishment under the purview of the law. But the responsibility of tackling this culture of dowry and domestic abuse falls upon the society - made up of each individual person who has the power to empower girls, to raise better men, and to speak out in the loudest of voices against injustice in any shape or form.

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