Guest Author - Lisbeth Cheever-Gessaman
Imagine that you are a young bride, busy with tending the duties of your modest home in India, the scent of spices permeating the air. It’s late afternoon, the warm sun hangs apricot in the sky. Suddenly, your husband flies through the door in a rage. Chaos ensues, you panic, uncertain and desperately trying to calm him, fumbling through your mind for some possible provocation. He turns quietly after a moment and you nearly let out a sigh of relief, when a splash of liquid hits your face saturating your clothes, hair and skin. Your eyes scream with agony when horribly you begin to recognize the strong, unmistakable scent of gasoline.
And then, you hear the strike of a match.
Congratulations - you have just become another victim of Choola. If you are fortunate, after an agonizing ten minutes in flame, you will die. If not, you will be forced to live your life as an outcast, horribly burned and disfigured among the beggars of India, ostracized and a symbol of what has been termed by some as an ‘honor crime’, and by others as just another example of a dowry dispute.
The groom's family will explain it away as a little ‘kitchen accident’. It is likely that no one will ever question it, nor that your husband will ever serve time.
India, with it’s rich and colorful heritage evokes images of spices, spirituality and an often disparate and exotic mélange of tradition; yet despite its emerging force as a technologically competitive nation with its western modernization, still maintains the cultural tradition of arranged marriages and dowries which are recognized as necessary rituals of marriage. What is lesser known is that an average of 25,000 women are systematically mutilated or killed every year over dowry disputes. Not surprisingly, the economic toll of maintaining this tradition, which often entails adding to an already indebted and financially over-strained society, often leads to the violence perpetuated against its women in the first place.
Traditionally, the dowry is defined as gifts of money, property and other wealth which are given to the groom's family by the bride's family to cover the expenses and costs of her marriage. The transaction of dowry often does not end with the actual wedding ceremony, as the family is expected to continue to give gifts throughout the span of the marriage. The financial burden that this inevitably places upon the family is one reason that female fetuses in India are systematically aborted, and why the ratio of Indian men to women as increased dramatically in the last two decades.
Dowry Disputes, for the uninitiated, are a blanket term that encompass any form of violence committed against an Indian woman which is perpetuated in order to extort further money from her family as a part of her dowry responsibilities. These acts of violence include harrassment, verbal and physical abuse and, where the brides family is unwilling or not able to contribute the asking price, actual burning by fire.
In the last eight years more than 4,000 women have died from ‘kitchen accidents’, or "Choola", where consists of dousing the victim with a flammable agent, either by the husband or with the help of his family, and setting her alight. It is said that Sita, wife of Rama and the exemplar of womanly virtue, walked through fire to show her love for her husband, and it is here that the roots of this barbaric custom lay their claim. The little ‘kitchen accidents’ as they are referred to are the echoes of Sita today, and India’s streets resound with the silence of their cries.
One of the most abhorrent aspects of Choola is that when and if the bride survives, she is considered ‘bad luck’ and summarily ostracized by the husband and family, leaving the husband free to acquire a new bride.
A UNDP study in Bangladesh reports, "The incidence of physical and verbal abuse of wives due to non-fulfillment of dowry obligations by their fathers is so high that it is almost considered a norm. “
One group which is actively working to speak out and empower its women is the Progressive Womens Association founded by Shahnaz Bokhari, a clinical psychologist and active campaigner for women’s rights. Ms. Bokhari took up the cause when in October 2000, she aided a destitute woman seeking refuge from a violent husband by first using her own home as a safe house, and then setting up a shelter as a response to a nation that had no other accessible avenue of safety for these women.
Soon after, Bokhari was summoned to court for "abetting a woman in attempt to commit adultery" under the Hudood Ordinances. And although the Federal Sharia Court exonerated Bukhari in 2003 after two-and-a-half years of pressure and support from partner NGO's, the media and foreign diplomatic missions, police have continued to raid Bukhari’s home repeatedly. Despite these threats and harrassment, she remains dedicated to fighting for women’s rights in Pakistan and runs PWA from her private residence.
Her site can be found here, with a caveat: I did not include the pictures in this article because they are horrific. Let the reader be advised.
Progressive Womens Association
And because this is the world that we create, I encourage each of you to consider contributing something towards this cause, however small. In a society where we are infinitely blessed in so many ways, it’s good to extend from the center of that abundance and remember our sisters in India and Pakistan, supporting them in whatever way that we are able.
We can't afford not to.
Sources: UNDP, Wikipedia, PWA