Saturday, January 17, 2004

Oprah and the Indian Bride Who Said 'No'

With all the fuss in recent months about arranged marriages and the negative impact they have on the integration of muslim immigrants into Western societies, it might come as a surprise to some that muslims aren't the only ones with marriage practices that may strike Westerners as less than attractive.

NEW DELHI - When an Indian is flown specially from India to feature in the Oprah Winfrey show in the United States it becomes an occasion to revisit all that the person stands for. Such is the case of 22-year-old Nisha Sharma.

Nisha did something different, she dared to fight back when threatened with possible death, in this case, a dowry death. Ever since, she has become a symbol of the new Indian woman.

Nisha called the police when the family of her husband-to-be demanded extra dowry on the day of her marriage in June last year, and turned into an overnight heroine in India. 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. For such behavior, girls have been ostracized by their own families and 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.


It should be noted at this point that Nisha and her family had accepted the original dowry. The problem arose when the groom's family suddenly demanded more. Both families were in breach of the law. In India, the punishment for demanding a dowry is imprisonment for not less than six months and up to two years, and/or a fine that is up to 10,000 rupees ($215). The punishment for giving or taking dowry is worse: imprisonment for not less than five years and a fine of 15,000 rupees, or the value of the dowry, or more. In this case, the groom's family is in jail, but Nisha's is not.

What followed though was an outpouring of emotion, support, commercial interest and now Oprah, whose show featuring Nisha was scheduled to be run on Tuesday. Bollywood bigwigs and television producers wanted Nisha's story; politicians of every leaning lined up at her house to congratulate her, inviting her to join their party. TV news channels ran a ticker to accommodate the thousands of salutations from a fan club that has cut across class, geographic and gender barriers. Many men have written letters offering their hand in marriage.

Traditionally in India the script for Nisha's story would have gone another way. The father would probably have died of a heart attack on hearing of the fresh demand for money, or worse, begged the boy's family to go ahead with the marriage, allowing him some time to somehow arrange the money. He would have gone to any extent to save his izzat (honor) as nobody would marry his daughter after they found that she had been lined up to marry someone else. The girl, to protect the izzat of her father, would marry, then be tortured, probably killed. Nisha had other ideas.

While it is important to note that this young woman's plight met with a favorable reception amongst the great and the good in India - a positive development one wishes were also the rule in the Islamic world - it is still the case that what brought about a crisis was not the notion of having to pay a dowry as such, but the decision by the groom's family to renege on the sum initially agreed to. If one finds the notion of forced marriages between cousins abhorrent, one also ought to be repelled at the prospect of forced marriages in which the bride represents little more than an unpleasant burden some other family must be bribed to take off her parents' hands.