Jyoti Saikia (name changed on request) runs a flourishing hair and make-up business from her parlour in Mirza, where she’s training more than 40 young women. After walking out of her six-month-long marriage, where she suffered under the pressure of dowry demand from her husband, she aims to become a big businesswoman

Guwahati/Lakhipur/Mirza: It took two attempts on her life before Sharifa Begum filed a police complaint against her husband. The first time in 2015 he took her to a hill nearby in Lakhipur, where after physically assaulting her, he left her to die with their year-old child. After spending a month in the hospital recovering and two years apart from him, he asked her to come home. “I went back for the sake of my child who hadn’t seen his father for two years,” she said.

The second time he hit her was in public, when he threw her in a drain by a road. Convinced that she could no longer live with him, she filed a case against him under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, 498A (Cruelty by husband or his relatives) and attempt to murder. While she has been fighting her case in court for the past two years, she is yet to receive any maintenance from her husband and has taken to tailoring work to support her three kids from the marriage.

After a hurried nikah arranged by her aunt to Johirul Islam 11 years ago in Guwahati, Sharifa and her husband came back to their native town in Lakhipur, Goalpara. Soon after, she discovered her husband’s longtime affair with his brother’s wife that had resumed upon their return. The village elders even had a sit-down to discuss the matter but instead of ending his affair, he started making dowry demands. “He asked me for Rs 50,000 as joutuk (dowry). But really he was devising ways to push me away,” she said.

While Sharifa’s case may not be recorded in the National Crime Records Bureau under 498A or DV act (given that only the more heinous offence is accounted for), dowry related harassment is hardly an anomaly in Assam.

As per data shared by the government in the state assembly last year, 1,606 women died due to dowry from 2006 to March 2018 as compared to 83 due to rape and 80 in witch-hunting cases. Replying to another question in assembly in September 2018, state minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said that there has been 15,000 dowry-related cases in the last two years as compared to 4,130 cases of rape.

In Guwahati alone, dowry (1,544) saw the highest registration of cases more than abduction (1,543), sexual harassment (457) and rape (161). Despite these unsettling figures, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state is yet to come up with any concerted steps to address the issue.

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Can ‘joutuk’ and ‘juroon’ be considered dowry?

Although Rashida Khatoon brought 15 items as joutuk during her wedding, it did not deter her husband, Khairul Islam, from making a demand of Rs 50,000 about two years into their marriage. Unable to meet the demand (her father was no more), she was subjected to physical abuse and humiliation by her husband and his family. “They would taunt me for my dark complexion. Once I couldn’t meet their demand, the physical abuse got worse”, she told EastMojo.

Rashida Khatoon says that she and her daughter were thrown out of her marital home because of their dark complexion. Her husband demanded a sum of Rs 50,000 that he felt she owed him on account of her dark skin

Soon in a year’s time, Rashida and her daughter were thrown out of her marital home after which she filed a case of cruelty against Khairul. While 10 warrants were issued for his arrest, the police have not been able to arrest him till date although she’s aware he is living in Guwahati with a new wife. This is despite the fact that their marriage was formally registered in the Kamrup Marriage Registrar under the special marriage act in 2013. Moreover, Rashida was only 14 years back then although the papers certify her to be 18 years of age.

At her wedding 11 years ago, Sharifa was gifted a nose ring, a set of earrings and bangles, necklace and an anklet – all gold — as joutuk (dowry or ‘gifts’) from her parents. In addition, they also gifted her a bed set and kitchen utensils. As juroon, a ceremonial tradition in which the groom’s mother showers the bride with gifts, she had only received her wedding attire.

Yet, public officials, and even journalists, in Assam refute any existence of dowry in Assamese society, not equating juroon or joutuk to the kind of dowry exchange popularly conceived in North Indian wedding traditions.

‘Juroon’ or ‘Joutuk’ culturally has never been negotiated between the marriage parties and people have always given as per their capacity, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, editor-in-chief of Sadin (a weekly Assamese newspaper), told EastMojo. “Even if somebody can only afford a gold ring, it can be enough. Nobody will question it since it’s just a blessing but yes tamul pan (betel nut) and fish are customary,” she said.

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Anurita Hazarika of North East Network, a non-profit organisation working on violence against women in the region, says traditionally the practice of dowry as a formal transaction did not exist in Assamese society. She said that the traditional concept of joutuk gifted by the bride’s family composed of mostly utility items while the wedding finery would come from juroon. “Joutuk would typically be a new set of clothes, bucket, kitchen utensils, needle and thread and loom.”

A 2003 survey conducted by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in 5 districts of Assam found that dowry demands were no longer limited to gifts or household items. About 37% of the dowry demands were found to be for jewelry and 21% for cash. Notably, the survey showed that while “33.7 per cent of the women did not want dowry and sought to be educated and self-dependent, 20.4 per cent felt taking dowry was part of their ‘legal rights’ to their share of the paternal property”.

In a 2015 study on domestic violence in Assam, NEN found that 31.5% of the women respondents said that they were insulted by their husband or/and in-laws for not bringing in dowry. Moreover, the study noted that while no formal transaction regarding dowry was observed, “demands before and after the marriage exists both in cash and kind”.

In fact, a majority of 27% faced demand for dowry before/during marriage as opposed to 5.4% who faced after marriage and 8.3% faced harassment for ‘streedhan’ (gifts from the bride’s parents). “While we can’t say dowry is the main or leading cause of violence, there’s a lot of abuse which is very similar to the kind of dowry related harassment women face”, Hazarika told EastMojo.

Pujari, who has authored several titles on women’s issues in Assamese, says that the absence of dowry culture is likely because caste Hindus, who migrated to Assam several hundred years back, adopted the practices of the indigenous tribal communities here. “In the last 15-20 years, however, there has been increased instances of dowry cases, including burning of brides when they don’t meet the demand”, she told EastMojo. “This is, perhaps, due to the influence of saas bahu soap operas,” she added.

These numbers seem consistent with the data from the last three years on Indian Penal Code sections most typically used in dowry-related cases, especially the 40% jump in Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. This indicates that more complainants are filing cases of illegal exchange of dowry at the time of wedding or pre-marriage.

While the rate of reported cases under 498A has been consistently higher than the national average (58.7%), barely a few single digit cases have been registered under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

In February, Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced 1 tola gold for brides in the state in the annual state budget, two months before the state went into general elections in three phases. Explaining the rationale of the 1 tola gold scheme, Sarma said that it was a practice in large sections of Assamese society to “gift a set of gold ornaments to one’s daughter as a blessing as she leaves her father’s home”.

Alongside other handouts like free textbooks for families with annual income of Rs 2 lakh and scholarship schemes for minority girl students, the gold scheme was meant for families whose annual income is less than Rs 5 lakh. To avail the scheme, the government has made it mandatory to formally register under the Special Marriage (Assam) rules, 1954.

Sarma told EastMojo that the intention behind the gold scheme was to curb child marriages in the state (at 16.7%, higher than the national average) and ensure no desertion happens, when the marriage is formally registered. “Girls should not be put in a situation like talaq and desertion by husband. Once marriage takes place under special marriage act, enforcement of age will become necessary,” he said. “Dissolution of marriage will happen only through judicial process.”

Further, Sarma said that those registering under Hindu marriage act could also avail the scheme. “Special marriage act is secular where Muslims can also register. For Muslim girls, special act is necessary,” he added.

Despite the lack of complete acknowledgment around dowry practices, activists and intellectuals didn’t think that the government gold scheme would not yield any positive outcome. “While registration of marriage can help to prevent child marriage yet the gold scheme can put undue pressure on young girls getting married as soon as they come of age” Hazarika told EastMojo. “Moreover, it legitimises the practice of giving dowry.”

Pujari questioned the scheme being tied to a woman’s wedding. “What is the relation between gold and wedding? If the idea was to stress on ‘tradition’, then it’s not very modern thinking,” she said. “Especially among the poor, the emphasis would now be on the gold a bride will bring.”

However, when asked, Sarma said the notion that this would perpetuate dowry was ‘laughable’.

Want of public infrastructure for women in distress

Given how the rate of crimes against women in Assam is competing with figures in Delhi, the BJP government launched the first women’s helpline number 181 in March 2018. Nilakshi Sharma, who manages the 181 helpline from Guwahati, told EastMojo that out of 1,234 calls that they had received, 660 were related to domestic violence.

She said that the awareness about the helpline number is yet to reach all districts although they are receiving calls from everywhere in Assam. “So far, it has mostly been through word of mouth and Anganwadi workers have been instrumental in the rural areas. But under Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, we will soon be heavily promoting the helpline through radio FM and advertisements on public transport vehicles,” Sharma said.

But the helpline is only effective so far as the One Stop Centres (OSC) is functional given that OSCs should be equipped with a 24 hour helpline. In the first phase in 2017, the government set up five one-stop centres in Kamrup Metro, Cachar, Jorhat, Nagaon and Kokrajahar districts. Funded by the Central government under the ‘Nirbhaya fund’ since 2013-14, OSCs are meant to provide shelter, police desk, legal aid resources, medical examination and psychological counseling to victims of gender based violence under one roof.

A former employee of an OSC, who did not wish to be identified, told EastMojo that with the exception of the OSCs in the first phase, OSCs set up in all the districts during the second phase in 2019 were still not fully functional. “Important facilities like the helpline system (including a data system that syncs with the headquarters), video conferencing facility and a medical doctor available at all hours are found to be missing,” the source said, adding that the recently inaugurated OSCs (on women’s day) only had beds inside.

However, as per Kunjalata Lachon, the Protection Officer at the Social Welfare department, all the OSCs were fully functional although she could not recall all the districts where OSCs have been set up. Moreover, Lachon said that very rarely was dowry a major driving reason for domestic violence so far as the cases she has dealt with in the department.

An email query to the chief minister’s office, who also holds the home department portfolio in the state, on addressing dowry-related cases and his comment on the social repercussions of the 1 tola gold scheme is yet to be responded to. We will update this story as and when a response is received.

The necessity for functional OSCs cannot be stressed enough, especially in the absence of women’s shelter homes in rural districts and the lean network of grassroots NGOs in the state.

In Lakhipur, the office space of the Women’s Empowerment Centre triples up as the Family Welfare Centre and the counseling centre under the District Legal Services Authority. Rohia Begum, a social worker, says there’s no shelter home around for a woman in distress, who has no option but to go to a ‘thana’

In Lakhipur, the office space of the Women’s Empowerment Centre triples up as the Family Welfare Centre and the counseling centre under the District Legal Services Authority. The centre, which is tucked away in the backyard of a private property owned by the founder, Gayatri Chaudhury, now stands looking dilapidated and abandoned. “We used to do awareness camps here but now we conduct sessions in different places”, said Rohia Begum, a social worker who is now working under the Goalpara DLSA. In the last few months, she has been assisting legal cases in Lakhipur that earlier used to be referred to Goalpara town.

Junomoni Das, a barefoot counselor who works at the Mirza unit of NEN in Kamrup Rural district, told EastMojo that the nearest shelter home was in Boko and Jalukbari, situated 40 and 30-32 km (respectively) away from the centre. Many cases, she says, do not go the criminal complaint route despite torture, either physical or mental or both. Take for instance, Jyoti Saikia (name changed on request) came to the centre last year alleging neglect and emotional torture from her husband.

Junomoni Das, a barefoot counselor who works at the Mirza unit of North East Network in Kamrup Rural district, told EastMojo that the nearest shelter home was in Boko and Jalukbari, situated 40 and 30-32 km (respectively) from the centre

“She didn’t want to file a criminal case and was very clear about going for a divorce,” said Das. Today, Saikia runs a flourishing hair and make up business from her parlour in Mirza, where she’s training more than 40 young women. But ask about her six-month-long marriage and her eyes quickly well up.

“My father sold off his farmland for my marriage. I brought a full sofa set, bed set, dressing mirror and gold worth Rs 2 lakh. We could not afford all this but since we came from a poorer family, we wanted to match up to their (in laws) status,” Saikia told EastMojo. However, only a few months later, her husband asked for Rs 10,000 to sustain his broiler farm business. After fulfilling it, the demand for more money did not stop until she left his house for good.

Since then, she hasn’t looked back and entirely occupied herself with expanding her business that was left abandoned post marriage. Not only is she standing on her own feet but working beyond the limits of her small town as Saikia is often called on movie sets and shoots even in Delhi and Bombay. But she can’t wait for May 29, when her divorce will be finalised and she can finally retrieve all the items that have been left behind in her husband’s home.

“With my own money I have bought a gold ring, a new mobile phone and a scooty. But I want my streedhan back.”

(Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati. She can be reached at makepeace.sitlhou@gmail.com)

(Prakash Bhuyan is a documentary photographer and visual artist based in Assam. He studied documentary photography and photojournalism from Pathshala South Asian Media Institute)

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