Cherian and Jamila

“One aunt actually told me that I was a fool to give up what would have come my way even without me asking for it!”

How long have you been married? What do you both do?
Jamila: We’ve been married for twenty five years. He now works for a financial institution after doing his MBA, post engineering. I am a psychiatrist.

What made you decide that you will not ask for dowry? Do you think some factor in your upbringing has brought about this view? Or has someone inspired you towards this decision?
It is a combination of different things. For one, it was recognised as a social problem in Kerala. I was more sensitive about it since I have two sisters and we have had conversations about dowry. I grew up questioning the practice given the social injustice embedded in it and the severe financial strain it imposes on the girl’s parents. Apart from this, I was involved in an inter-church group for students where we would study the Bible, discuss the various issues of the day (including the practice of dowry) and seek to analyse them Biblically. We really could not find any justification for the practice of dowry and came to realise that at the root of the issue is a greed for money, which in itself is very antithetical to our faith.

Were your parents in agreement with your decision?
Yes, but it did not happen overnight and an extensive discussion was required. It was easier because my parents were not particular about retaining this practice in our family.

Jamila: My parents were initially uncomfortable and apprehensive. Even though they believed that it was wrong to demand a dowry, they thought that the custom of giving dowry is probably not wrong, if done voluntarily and fairly. However, as it had happened with my husband, after discussions with my Christian peers, I came to the conclusion that it is better not to give anything at the time of marriage.

Were your sisters married off without giving dowry?
Well, it was not dowry in the traditional form at all. My parents put some money in their names, but that was not the basis for their marriages!

Jamila: It was a step wise progression away from the concept. People are slowly moving away from it and finding ways to be fair with their kids, without immediately breaking the tradition.

Cherian: Though the anti-dowry law was enacted in 1961, the practice was almost universal in our community; even through the eighties when we got married. But increasingly the unfairness of the practice was being discussed.

What about your relatives? From what all quarters did you face opposition?
We were brought up outside Kerala, and these were decisions where the extended family did not have much of a say. We did have an odd relative or two who asked us about it. One aunt actually told me that I was a fool to give up what would have come my way even without me asking for it!

Do you think your decision altered your marriage for the better? Did it influence any of your relatives?
Well, if he had asked for dowry, I wouldn’t have married him! Funnily enough, he had set that condition for his decision as well. (Both laugh)

Cherian: I insisted that there should be no such financial transaction between the families before, during or after the marriage. Dowry is a symptom of a much deeper set of problems – discrimination on the basis of sex and the basic attitude to money and material possessions.

Jamila: It begins because men think they are worth more. And it stays on because of the continuing greed for money and power.

Cherian: Whether our relatives followed in our wake, I’m not very sure since we rarely discussed the issue publicly. Many of them had different value systems. Those who shared our values were able to appreciate it like our friends did.

What is your advice for the youth? How do you think they should handle opposition?
I think it is important to emphasize that taking or giving dowry is a crime – just as criminal as committing murder or stealing or cheating.

Jamila: Unfortunately, there are these loopholes - for instance, the family can give gifts and this is something that can be exploited. But if you look at it objectively, it is still illegal. The other issue is the principle of fairness. Boys should really think as to whether it is a just practice. Why should the girls’ share be given to the in-laws? What is just about that? It’s all a so lopsided. The two of them should be able to decide what to do with any gift that they get.  Since young people are idealistic we can challenge them to rise above such unfair customs.

Cherian: It is important for them to talk to their parents more on all these issues. This will help prepare the parents to breakaway from such traditions in due time.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Cherian: Girls would certainly resent it when demands are imposed on their families. Such incidents are not easily forgiven or forgotten and can fester in our minds. Sometimes, these issues become an impediment to a healthy and harmonious relationship between the young couple.

It’s sad when marriage becomes all about getting rather than giving. People spend so much of money - Rs. 30,000/- or Rs. 50,000/- on a wedding gown, or a suit or a sari that they would probably never wear again. It seems so excessive, especially in our country which has so much poverty. Can’t we give up these things, which we consider justifiable and legitimate, for the sake of the greater good of caring for the less fortunate members of society?

Jamila: We belonged to a more idealistic time. When we were young, the ‘hippie’ movement was very active as a reaction against the hypocrisies prevalent in society. While we are past that era, I think that young people are still idealistic. Nowadays, there are many more people who do not take dowry – hopefully this would be the norm very soon.