Bridal fashion shows are, for the most part, about creating a fantasy around a beautiful bride in a spectacular gown on her perfect day. For bridal designers the world over, success in selling this fantasy is key to the bottom line for their business.
Clients’ expectations to see positive, aspirational imagery explain why Pakistani bridal designer, Ali Xeeshan, surprised many earlier this year when he released a fashion film on Instagram to promote his latest collection of bridal couture, in which the “bride,” a child model wearing an ornate red wedding gown, has tears running down her face as she pulls a heavy cart, loaded with goods.
The collection, entitled Numaish (an Urdu term that translates to “exhibition” in English), which showed as part of the Pantene HUM Bridal Couture Week 2021 in Lahore, was part of an initiative Xeeshan undertook in conjunction with UN Women Pakistan to bring attention to the latter’s ongoing anti-dowry campaign.
A dowry traditionally consists of jewellery, cash, cars or other assets that a bride’s family is expected to give to a prospective groom’s family when they are married in order to compensate them for taking on the “burden” of a new daughter.
Though it is unpopular to talk openly about the ongoing culture of dowry demands in Pakistan, Xeeshan said he felt compelled to speak out against the practice, which he says he has observed first-hand pervading the country’s wedding industry.
I wanted to utilise the glamour and media hype associated with the catwalk to … start off a conversation.
“There have been times when high-end clients’ weddings have gotten cancelled at the last minute because the grooms’ families list of requirements had not been fulfilled,” he said adding that at in one particular instance, a wedding for which he had already created the bridal outfit was “cancelled at the eleventh hour because the bride’s family had forgotten to provide a shaving kit for the groom made out of gold.”
While UN Women Pakistan and others applauded Xeeshan’s use of his fashionable platform to bring attention to the issue, his “exhibition” was not universally welcomed, with others on social media pointing out that, as a bridal designer whose heavily embellished lehenga ensembles have price tags running into millions of Pakistani rupees (over $6,000), Xeeshan himself also contributed to the monetary pressure placed on Pakistani brides.
“Instead of giving a lecture at a conference or being part of a panel discussion, I wanted to utilise the glamour and media hype associated with the catwalk to pinpoint something that was wrong and perhaps start off a conversation,” Xeeshan said in response to this criticism.
It’s a conversation that many people believe is long overdue, with the dowry demands Xeeshan has encountered as part of his work with wealthy clientele only the tip of the iceberg.
For less affluent brides, demands for dowry mean they or their parents can be forced to take out loans they struggle to pay back, but the consequences for not paying up can be even worse.
An Age-Old Tradition
When dowry expectations are not met, UN Women Pakistan says, the bride and her family can be subjected to harassment and violence, with women being murdered or committing suicide as a result of dowry pressure, so-called “dowry fatalities” found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran.
Though the pandemic’s deadly second wave in India is currently top of mind for most across South Asia, the impact of the dowry system is perennial. With a population more than five times that of Pakistan, India is the country where the most women die dowry-related deaths, with figures from a UN study showing that dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 percent of all female murders reported annually in India, a proportion that remained stable between 1999 and 2016.
But the death rate in Pakistan is actually higher on a per capita basis. With 2,000 such deaths reported per year, Pakistan’s dowry death rate is 2.45 per 100,000 women, compared with India’s 1.4 per 100,000 women.
As depressing as these figures are, the even more depressing fact is that these dowry-related death statistics only represent those being counted, with many more probably occurring without being classified as such. Part of the problem seems to be that laws aimed at restricting dowry demands have only made it less overt rather than stopping the practice.
Even though several federal and provincial laws in Pakistan have existed for decades, legally limiting the value of these kinds of gifts, the giving and receiving of dowry continues to be a normal part of the wedding process for many Pakistani families.
“I am an only daughter and I know that my father was saving for my dowry since I was 14 just because that’s how things have always been in our family. A lot of times, the demand for dowry is unspoken,” said Karachi-based fashion model, Mushk Kaleem.
Pakistan’s Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act 1976, for example, restricts the value of dowry and bridal gifts at 5,000 Pakistani rupees ($32) and the maximum value of presents given to the bride and bridegroom at only 100 rupees ($0.65).
Though the penalty for violation of any provision of the Act is imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to 10,000 rupees ($64), or both, UN Women Pakistan says these laws are rarely enforced.
Farwa Kazmi, a prominant Pakistani model, said that although dowry wasn’t even a consideration at her own wedding, her peers are not all so fortunate.
“I remember being shocked when a very close friend of mine was getting married and her parents were collecting her dowry. She was very well-educated and from a very affluent family but somehow, her family thought that she would be respected more by her in-laws if she brought a sizeable dowry with her,” Kazmi said.
Fielding Covert Requests
Mohsin Naveed Ranjha is a young Pakistani designer with a considerable following in the province of Punjab and particularly in his native city of Gujranwala. He says when dowry comes up among his affluent clientele, it is more often implied than overtly discussed.
“The groom’s mother may hint that her son only likes a certain kind of car or that he wants a large TV in his room. The bride’s family may be told that they need to fulfil certain requirements for dowry because it is ‘tradition’ and the groom’s family will feel humiliated if they do not do so,” Ranjha said.
I know that my father was saving for my dowry since I was 14 just because that’s how things have always been in our family.
Karachi-based Rizwan Beyg, one of Pakistan’s best-known designers who also dressed Princess Diana, says he has never encountered clients who openly discuss being burdened by dowry demands, but that a more subtle expectation may remain. “None of my clients have ever mentioned dowry to me so I can’t conclusively say that they are all burdened by it [but] I am assuming that it continues to be a practice in some families,” he contended.
Others posit that demands for dowry might be more overt in more traditional regions, with the practice being less obvious in major markets such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad compared to smaller cities in the Punjab province (where Mohsin Naveed Ranjha and Ali Xeeshan have a significant business).
“In the interior regions, I feel that the practice of dowry mongering is still more common. Even the very wealthy live traditional lives and believe in age-old cultural practices like the giving and taking of dowry,” said bridal designer, Khadijah Shah.
Though the continuation of dowry expectations is disappointing to critics of the practice, the fact that dowries have become a less obvious phenomenon also points to the tradition’s fading popularity in many areas in which it previously would have been more common and overt.
This gives many hope that the practice is gradually fading into obscurity as middle class parents in Pakistan and the wider South Asia region choose to invest in their daughter’s wedding as an act of celebrating their daughter and her impending nuptials, rather than an expectation from the groom’s side that they should be compensated for the addition of a daughter to their family.
“Some years ago, it was more common for mothers and daughters to comment while ordering clothes that so-and-so’s outfit will be set aside as the girl’s dowry,” said Maliha Aziz, the chief executive at wedding-wear brand Farah Talib Aziz. “Now, attitudes have changed and we observe parents placing orders for their daughter’s trousseau because they want to do so,” she added.
Designer Mohsin Naveed Ranjha is also clear that, while he sees dowry requests play out as part of his business, it is “happening less and less frequently.” He also added that he observed the rise of grooms opposing dowry, with a bride’s family ordering clothes on behalf of the groom, expecting the gift will be looked upon favourably, only to discover that he wants no part of accepting a dowry.
“There have been times when the bride’s family has ordered a traditional sherwani for the groom, cancelling the order the very next day because the groom wants to pay for his clothes himself,” he explained.
Though this is certainly a sign of progress, the abolition of the dowry tradition can’t come quickly enough for some Pakistani designers.
“[I can no longer] stay quiet about a cruelty which is accepted as an inevitable reality in our region,” Xeeshan said.