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Defying Dowry

June 2003
Defying Dowry

She dared to be different, to fight back when being threatened with possible death, a dowry death. Meet the courageous 21-year old who has become a symbol of the new Indian woman.


She is India's Jessica Lynch. 21-year old Nisha Sharma did not fire a gun at the enemy; she did not brave a volley of enemy bullets; she is not the first woman prisoner of war ever to be rescued. But, Nisha did something similar.

She called the police when the family of her husband-to-be demanded extra dowry on the day of her marriage. And that has turned her overnight into a heroine in India, in the mold of Lynch.

Both acts were just as risky.

Nisha chose to stand up to a man who was to be her husband, and also took on his family. In India, this can be close to staring death in the eye, the way it was with Lynch.

For such behavior, girls have been ostracized by their own families, even killed by their husband's family. According to government figures, in 2001, angry husbands and in-laws killed over 7,000 women over small dowry payments. Nisha's not-to-be husband has been quoted as saying that if he had ended up marrying her he would probably have thrown her off the terrace.

Filmi Style Drama

In Nisha's case, events unfolded as dramatically as in any Bollywood potboiler. The irony is, just as in the movies, it was the mother of the groom (the emphasis here being that she is woman), who masterminded the plot.

It did not matter that her son was just a lowly paid teacher, who probably would have lived off his software-professional wife's income, or even that of her father, from the successful business he runs, if not tortured or killed her.

He was born a man, and that's often enough in this country.

There was already plenty on offer, arranged by the bride's family. Photographs of Nisha with the dowry have been splashed across the media ? fridge, air-conditioners, TV. She was to drive off in a new black Maruti Esteem that costs Rs 5 lakh, bought by her father for the use of her husband's family, the rights duly transferred in their name.

But, they wanted more. The baraat (marriage procession), with the groom's mother as master of ceremonies, asked for cash (Rs 15 lakh) to be hand-delivered at the reception area itself, before her son, who followed on a traditionally bedecked horse, would condescend to alight.

The father of the bride demurred, and was therefore pushed, abused and finally slapped by the groom's mother.

When Nisha, in her traditional finery and mehendi heard the commotion, she reached for her cell phone, just as Lynch reached for her gun when faced with enemy fire.

The rest is history and the reactions similar ? an outpouring of emotion, support and commercial interest. Bollywood bigwigs and television producers want Nisha's story; politicians of every leaning are lining up at her house to congratulate her, inviting her to join their party. TV news channels are running a ticker to accommodate the thousands of salutations from a fan club that has cut across class, geography and gender barriers. Many men have written letters offering their hand in marriage.

In circumstances such as Nisha', many in the past have gone ahead, forced by circumstance, and not lived to tell the tale. In this case, the groom's family is in jail. But, the script could have gone either way. The father would probably have died of a heart attack or worse begged the boy's family to go ahead with the marriage, he would arrange the money somehow, to save his izzat (honor), as nobody would marry his daughter after they found that she was to be married to someone else.

The girl, to protect the izzat of her father would marry, then be tortured, probably killed.

Nisha had other ideas.

The New Indian Woman

Two things stand out in this episode. One, it was purely Nisha's decision to do what she did, and she did so with her own cell phone, a modern gadget used as a window to the rest of the world that she had access to and knew about.

Women with cell phones ? the commercials portray them incessantly ? you see them in big cars and at board meetings. You don't see them being beaten by prospective husbands.

Nisha called the police without getting off her seat, without seeking anybody's advice. Given the delicate situation, she might have been stopped had she even got off.

Her mother, like many mothers in the past, could have said, "Beti, think about your father, the husband is like god, you have to learn how to keep quiet, who will marry you."

With a cell phone, however, it was a matter of seconds.

Nisha, the new face of the Indian woman, exemplified by the cell phone she carries and the software degree she is studying for, won the day.

She must have faced a dilemma before she took the split second decision ? the thoughts inside her mind must have been sharply divided into two ? of a life in which she could probably never SMS her friends again, with her new home a dungeon she could never escape. Or, another of an independent woman, a successful professional and a husband who deserved her, respected her for what she is.

Second, Nisha, as a software professional also knows that she has the power to emancipate herself through her skills. Her family has stood by her, but she knows that it was they who need her strength, not she. Her father did what he has been brought up to believe, his daughter did what she thought was right.

The strings of tradition did tie her down initially. As she said in the interview, she kept quiet while the initial demands for dowry were being made. She knew her parents considered it their duty to marry her and she did not want to make the job difficult for them.

In the end, Nisha chose the right path.

Many have gone the other way; probably they didn't have a choice. Some might have had, but didn't exercise it. Nisha did.

The world salutes her.

[Would you like to comment on this topic or article? Write to letters@khabar.com]

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