Australia | For Love or Money

A proposed anti-dowry law sparks debate in a multi-cultural society

A proposed legal amendment to recognise dowry demands as a form of economic abuse was first put before the Victoria state parliament in April. Phil Ostrof / creative comons
01 October, 2014

ON A CHILLY AUGUST EVENING, my host sat cross-legged, surrounded by boxes, on the lounge-room floor of her single-storey home in north Melbourne. Tall and willowy, she remained straight-backed as she flicked through affidavits and court orders that bore testament to a dowry dispute, a divorce and a property settlement. The documents are reminders of a time the 32-year-old Punjabi woman was loath to be reminded of. When I asked her to start from the beginning, she said softly that she would prefer for me to read her story, and brought up a brief autobiography on her laptop. She asked that I not reveal her name.

After completing her MBA in Delhi in July 2005, my host returned home to her village in Punjab to learn that her marriage was imminent. “We’re checking someone out,” her father told her, handing her a photograph and a matrimonial advertisement from a local newspaper. “Lives in Australia, IT graduate, looking for educated girl,” the ad read. She was then 25 years old, and had long accepted that an arranged marriage would be her fate. She protested, but without conviction. Her intended husband was in Sydney completing a master’s degree. After chatting a few times over Skype, the couple first met in the flesh in the Punjabi city of Bathinda in January 2006, on the day they were married.

A few days later, while still in India, my host learnt that her husband had yet to apply for permanent residency in Australia. The Australian government judges applicants on the basis of their education, English-language skills and employment prospects, and an immigration agent had advised him that he would not meet the criteria. But, my host was told, if her spouse could show a bank balance of 100,000 Australian dollars—then equivalent to about R33 lakh—to prove to the Australian government that he was a person of independent means, the newlyweds’ future in the country would be secure. She told me that no one asked her family for the money directly, but it was made clear that a hefty contribution was expected. “My mother-in-law would say, ‘What’s 100,000 dollars? When you are in Australia, you can bring over your brother and sister to have a better life.’” In the end, her parents contributed about 35,000 dollars, or roughly Rs 11.5 lakh.

Six years later, she left her husband after he pulled a kitchen knife on her and their three-year-old daughter in their Melbourne home. In India, her parents filed suit against her husband’s family, alleging dowry harassment and that their daughter had been exploited to secure permanent residency for her spouse. In Australia, she began divorce proceedings, and entered a legal battle over the four-bedroom house where she had lived, which was registered in her husband’s name. She argued that a large share of the 35,000 dollars her parents had contributed as part of the marriage—in effect, her dowry—had gone into the property. Her husband denied receiving any payment, and argued that his own parents had contributed generously. Since Australian law has no provision to account for dowries, she could not seek redress specifically for dowry-related harassment.

Activists lobbying for anti-dowry laws in Australia argue that cases such as this underscore a legal lacuna. Now, they are pushing for legal reforms to protect victims of dowry harassment, and politicians are taking note. Earlier this year, Ted Ballieu, a member of the Victorian parliament and a former state premier, petitioned the legislature to amend the Family Violence Act to make demanding a dowry a form of economic abuse. The proposal, which identifies dowry as a potentially harmful practice, is currently awaiting the consideration of the state’s attorney general, and if approved will be put to a vote in the parliament. Activists say the legislation, if passed, would be largely symbolic, but an important first step in a campaign to criminalise dowry practices across the country. Ultimately, they are lobbying for anti-dowry laws much like India’s, banning demands for gifts or money within the first seven years of marriage. But in Australia’s multi-cultural society, where numerous cultural groups practice varied dowry traditions, such proposals are encountering opposition from the Indian community and beyond.

Indians are Australia’s fourth-largest migrant group, and after more than doubling over the past decade the country’s Indian-born population now exceeds 400,000. Many of the new arrivals enter Australia as students hoping to secure permanent residency, and eventually look to India for wives. “Dowry is a big incentive for men who are going back to India to get married,” Manjula O’Connor, an Indian-born psychiatrist closely involved with the diaspora community, told me. O’Connor has noted a surge in dowry-related harassment accompanying this migrant wave. In Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria where she lives and practices, she said she has come across 150 cases in the past year—many involving newly arrived brides made to feel beholden to their husbands for bringing them to a foreign country. “Patients are filling me in on dowry demands,” she said, “and telling me that if they weren’t met, they were followed by emotional and physical abuse.”

At her office in Melbourne’s central business district, O’Connor introduced me to one of her clients, a Muslim woman from Hyderabad wearing a scarf over her head and a black ankle-length robe. The woman was recently divorced. After she arrived in Australia to join her new husband in 2010, she told me, his family demanded she pay R25 lakh. She came up with only R5 lakh, and so was ostracised. “My husband physically and sexually abused me,” she said. “I was like a slave in their house. I was doing everybody’s duties, washing everybody’s clothes, underwear, everything. I slept on the bare floor beside my husband who slept in a single bed. … I was treated worse than a dog.”

In September 2012, O’Connor founded the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health, a Melbourne-based think-tank that seeks to combat domestic violence in the Indian community, and which drafted the proposed amendment to the Family Violence Act. When I met Molina Asthana, a lawyer who worked on the proposal, she explained the symbolic value of the legislation. “The awareness needs to be created for people who are not of Indian background and who don’t understand the concept of dowry and what it constitutes,” she said. “So the purpose is to educate legislators, judges and the general public about dowry.” While awaiting a decision on the amendment, the ACHRH continues to lobby for more potent reforms. Its current legal wish-list has three main items: laws prohibiting would-be immigrants who practice dowry from settling in Australia; laws criminalising the practice of dowry on Australian soil; and treaties between Australia and India for prosecuting in one country related offences committed in the other.

The ACHRH’s work is focused primarily on Indian women, but in a multicultural society like Australia dowry traditions affect more than just that group, and opinions on possible anti-dowry laws are divided. Here dowry is practiced by South Asians, West Asians and Africans, and the rituals in each of these communities are highly nuanced. Among the South Sudanese, for instance, the onus is on the groom’s family to provide a dowry, often in the form of cattle and goats. Demands are explicit; the absence of anti-dowry laws in South Sudan has allowed the practice to evolve in the open. I spoke over the phone to Peter Pal, a community leader who heads the Union of Greater Upper Nile, an organisation of immigrants from South Sudan. He cited the case of a young man in Melbourne who worked in an abattoir to save up 20,000 Australian dollars for a dowry. Less than a year after handing over the money his marriage ended, and he could not recoup his investment. Pal said that he believed the practice deserved to be outlawed, but also that many in his community would regard anti-dowry laws an assault on tradition.

But the most vocal detractors of the proposed reforms hail from the Indian community. Earlier this year, an umbrella organisation called the Federation of Indian Associations of Victoria produced a memorandum of understanding arguing against the legislation currently before the attorney general. It then forwarded the document to a long list of members of parliament. Many critics of the ACHRH accuse the organisation of overstating the extent of dowry-related harassment in Australia. At his Melbourne home I met Phulvinderjit Singh Grewal, a community worker and former president of the Sikh temple in the suburb of Craigieburn. He said that the proposed legislation was not required, because there is no dowry abuse problem in Australia. He told me that Indian women facing broken marriages are prone to making false claims against their estranged husbands and in-laws, much like their counterparts in India. In the absence of anti-dowry laws in Australia, he said, divorcing Indian couples often approach the police with fabricated tales of domestic violence. “The parents in India, they’re telling their daughters to go to the police, and they do what they are told. They think, ‘Maybe we can get some punishment’.” Anti-dowry laws in Australia, he predicted, would be abused.

While my host’s dowry case in India is yet to be resolved, her Australian legal battle is behind her. For threatening his wife and child with a knife, her estranged husband was eventually found guilty of assault and fined 1,200 dollars. Later, the couple officially divorced and settled their financial dispute out of court: she was awarded 65 percent of the value of their house, and her ex-husband bought her out. She now lives in Melbourne with her daughter and new husband, who arrived from India in August this year. Though he was eligible for a spouse visa, he chose to settle in Australia on a student visa instead—a much costlier option. The decision was something of wedding gift to his wife. “In my first marriage I felt used and bartered from the very beginning,” my host said. “My husband knew what had happened to me and he wanted me to know that he didn’t look at me with that kind of mindset. He wanted me to know that this was a marriage built on love, not a transaction.”