‘No stress.’ An end to dowry relieves families in Kashmir village.

Safina Nabi
A bride prepares to leave with her husband after a wedding ceremony in Babawayil, a Muslim village in Indian-administered Kashmir, Aug 29, 2019. The bride's face is covered with a Kashmiri shawl, which by tradition her mother-in-law will remove to reveal her face after the couple arrives at their new home. Babawayil ended dowry payments at weddings four decades ago.
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Lavish weddings are a sign of social status in India, as are dowries of money, gold, and cars given to the groom and his family. But the cost of dowry payments can be so prohibitive that women delay getting married. And disputes between families over dowries are blamed for the deaths of thousands of women annually.  

For the last three decades, a Muslim village in Indian-ruled Kashmir has bucked this trend. Its community-led campaign against dowry payments has been so successful that parents no longer worry about the cost of their daughters getting married. Weddings are modest affairs, subject to written rules on how much can be spent. Dowry violence is unheard of. 

Why We Wrote This

Violence associated with dowry obligations is a scourge across India. A community-led reform in Kashmir shows how it can be tackled.

The example set by the village of Babawayil hasn’t yet caught on, and the dowry remains a deeply embedded custom across South Asia, defying past government efforts to outlaw it. Roop Rekha Verma, a rights activist and retired academic, says India’s government should back a national campaign to promote community-led abolition of dowries. 

“If we see the dowry crime rate against women, this village is doing something revolutionary. The message of this village is very beautiful that we all must aspire to follow,” she says. 

On a sunny morning, Iqra Altaf hung her laundry outside the newly built concrete home where she lives with her new husband. Its white-framed windows look onto lush green paddy fields and a path of tall green trees. 

Ms. Altaf married her husband, Ishraq Ahmed Shah in July. The two live in the same village in Indian-ruled Kashmir and their marriage was approved by both families. But unlike in most marriages in India, no money or goods were paid by the bride’s family to Mr. Shah and his family. Instead, he gave a modest sum of money to Ms. Altaf. 

Welcome to the village that outlawed dowries. 

Why We Wrote This

Violence associated with dowry obligations is a scourge across India. A community-led reform in Kashmir shows how it can be tackled.

Across India, dowry costs and disputes over payments have long fueled harassment of women. Violence associated with the giving or receiving of a dowry is blamed for the death of a woman roughly every hour, according to a 2019 report by India’s national crime bureau.

While the dowry began as a Hindu custom, in which parents compensate a husband and his family for taking a daughter into their household, it has become a mainstay of Muslim marriages in South Asia, including in Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India.

Large, lavish weddings are a sign of social status in India, as are dowries of gold, cars, and houses. But the cost of weddings and dowry payments can be prohibitive for many, leading women to delay getting married. 

It was this way in Babawayil, a Muslim village of around 1,000 people, until community leaders started to question the practice in 1980. They asked villagers to pledge to neither give nor receive a dowry and pasted a document on the wall in the mosque. One copy went to the village head and another to the district commissioner. 

The no-dowry document was revised in 2004 and 2021. It bars any gifts from the bride’s family and sets a limit of 53,000 rupees ($720) for payments by the groom, including the cost of the bride’s wedding outfits.

The penalty for families who break the community’s rules is exclusion from prayers at the mosque and from claiming a burial site in the graveyard. Villagers say these rules are followed by all families, rich and poor, and that the result has been an absence of dowry-related disputes and violence.

Safina Nabi
A view of rice fields abutting Babawayil, a Muslim village in Indian-administered Kashmir, in September 2020.

Eight days to prepare

Ms. Altaf, age 23, is a business student at the University of Kashmir in Srinigar; Mr. Shah is a graduate who runs a clothing business. Their wedding preparations took just eight days. She says her family is well off – her father is the village headman – but preferred a simple marriage. 

“Wedding is a memorable event and it becomes an eternal part in one’s life. By the grace of God, my wedding will also remain a memorable one,” she says. 

Ms. Altaf received the equivalent of $30 as mehr, a direct payment from the groom’s family. This is well below the current cap on payments, which has been revised over the years to reflect inflation. She didn’t receive any silver or gold ornaments, which are common at Indian weddings. 

“In the document drafted in 2004, gold earrings were given to the bride but in the recent document that too was discarded, considering the inflation and high gold rates,” she says. 

Dowry payments are illegal in India under a 1961 law and punishable by fines and imprisonment. But this prohibition is widely ignored by families entering into marriage and rarely, if ever, enforced, making the community-led effort in Babawayil a noteworthy exception. 

“I was 25 years old when the elders of this village started this campaign,” says Ghulam Nabi Shah, a retired forest department officer. “The idea excited me.” After seeing how Kashmiris spent so much on weddings, he volunteered for the campaign and still helps to promote its message. 

The residents of Babawayil belong to the Shah caste and trace their roots back several centuries. Nearly all marriages occur within the caste. 

Muhammad Ashraf Shah, a resident of Babawayil who has two daughters, says he’s not worried about how to cover their wedding expenses. “I have not saved even a single penny for their wedding; I spend on their education and other study-related matters as I have no stress about the dowry.”

“Something revolutionary”

Even in Kashmir, most people aren’t aware of what steps Babawayil has taken against dowries. That frustrates rights activists like Roop Rekha Verma, a retired academic, who suggests India’s government should back a national campaign, along similar lines.

“If we see the dowry crime rate against women, this village is doing something revolutionary. The message of this village is very beautiful that we all must aspire to follow,” she says. 

Still, the resistance across India to ending dowry payments suggests this will be an uphill task. Javaid Rashid, a professor of social welfare at the University of Kashmir, says expensive weddings impose a financial and psychological burden on families in Kashmir. He praises Babawayil’s community-led approach as one that should be highlighted so that other communities can replicate it.

“Any law or legislation will not change any social structure until people are ready to change, and this village and its people have set an example,” he says.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Professor Rashid's name.

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