This Town Ended a Marriage Custom That Has Devastated Generations of Families

It is illegal but rampant in India and has led to violence against brides.
October 6, 2021, 8:18am
students baba wayil no dowry town
High school students walk home after  school in Baba Wayil, a town in

India’s Jammu and Kashmir region. Families in the town have signed a “no dowry” agreement. Photo: Quratulain Rehbar

Walnut trees line the eerie village of Baba Wayil on the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s only 30 miles from Srinagar city in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region, but it can take up to two hours by car to reach this remote, almost secret lush corner of the country.

In many ways, this town is frozen in time. More than a hundred families live here, with roots that go back 750 years. They live much like their ancestors did—harvesting walnuts and weaving the soft pashmina shawls that Kashmir is famous for. 

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But the people of this area are taking on one of the oldest traditions in India. Baba Wayil is one of the first towns in South Asia to systematically resist the practice of giving dowry to the groom’s family.

“People often take dowries and brag about it. In my village, Baba Wayil, if you talk to any women, you won’t see a single case of dowry-related violence or any kind of harassment against women,” 23-year-old Zubaida Bano, who got married recently, told VICE World News.

Kashmir woman walnut peeling no dowry town

A woman from Baba Wayil peeling walnuts at home. Photo: Quratulain Rehbar

Dowry is an age-old social practice in which the bride’s family is expected to give money and lavish gifts to the groom’s family as part of the marriage contract. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 was the first law in India making the act of giving and receiving dowry illegal. However, the practice remains rampant in India. 

According to a report by the BBC, researchers in India looked at 40,000 marriages in rural areas between 1960 and 2008, and found that dowry was paid in 95 percent of them.

The practice has also led to a sharp rise in crimes against women. In 2006, researchers from a journal Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, found that the amount of dowry is linked to violence against women in India. The research also documented extreme cases of “dowry deaths,” or the murder of the bride by her husband and his family.

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In 2019, police in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir recorded eight dowry-related deaths against a wider backdrop of gender-based violence in which 3,069 crimes against women were recorded that included rape, molestation, domestic violence and forced marriage.

“Families usually sell their land to marry off their daughter and meet the demands of the groom's family. We took a stance against dowry to bring in a sense of equality among people. Also, to value women equally in our society,” Altaf Shah, Bano’s father, told VICE World News. In nearby villages, families continue to send brides off with a literal truckload of dowry items meant for the groom and his family. But in Baba Wayil, 150 families have signed a document swearing they wouldn’t engage in dowry exchange during marriages. 

VICE World News reviewed the document that states, “No person has [the right] to demand jewelry, television, refrigerator, clothes, etc. from the bride's family.”

It included social exclusion among punishments for families who break the agreement. 

“Anyone who violates the rule will be boycotted socially, and is denied an entry to the mosque for the rest of his life; also the person/family won’t be allowed to bury their dead in the local graveyard,” the document states.

These social repercussions were key for the town’s inhabitants, who are predominantly Muslim.

imam bashir ahmad baba wayil kashmir no dowry town

Bashir Ahmad, imam, reading from the town's no-dowry agreement at his home. Photo: Quratulain Rehbar

“Locals in the village are also deeply alarmed by reports of women being killed or committing suicide in other parts of Kashmir and India,” Bashir Ahmad Shah, the village’s 67-year-old imam, told VICE World News. 

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The village has shunned dowry since 1985, Shah added, but they decided to formalize it with a written document in 2004. The village updated the document recently, adding more provisions on mahr, a gift given by grooms to brides in Islamic marriages, along with an additional amount for the bride’s marital expenses. 

According to the town’s no-dowry agreement, the bride should be given at least $200 in mahr and $300 to shop for her wedding.

So in Baba Wayil, it is actually the groom's family that has to pay the bride's family, without demanding anything in return – a custom rarely followed anywhere else in India.

“Maybe for others, marrying this way might look strange, but for us, it has become our lifestyle now,” Iqra Altaf, a college student who recently got married in Baba Wayil, told VICE World News.

For too long, women had become victims of their husbands’ and husbands’ families’ insatiable desire for large dowries, she said. Locals view the payment of dowry turns a marriage into a business transaction between families, and those who take part in it are ultimately responsible for crimes that may result from it. 

To prove that they’ve made the right decision, locals at Baba Wayil said no woman has reported any case of violence by her husband or in-laws ever since they stopped the practice of dowry.

“We started this initiative so that no poor man or woman who desires to marry has to wait and save, and no family has to force itself to sell a piece of land to spend on the marriages of their daughters,” said Altaf.

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