BMW car, 150 sovereigns & 15 acres: Young doctor’s death over alleged dowry demand sparks debate in Kerala

Dowry is still demanded and given in Kerala. The latest victim is a 28-year-old doctor whose family could not meet a hefty demand.

ByK A Shaji

Published Dec 07, 2023 | 7:05 PMUpdatedDec 07, 2023 | 7:05 PM

Shahana

The death by suicide of a 28-year-old post-graduate student of surgery, allegedly after her fiancé withdrew from the planned alliance since her family could not meet his demand for a huge dowry, has created an uproar in Kerala.

The deceased, Dr Shahana, was a student of the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, and reportedly injected herself with an anesthesia overdose on Monday, 4 December.

The incident has yet again exposed the practice of demanding and providing dowry in supposedly progressive Kerala, which has put many families in dire straits.

Dr Shahana of Venjaramoodu in Thiruvananthapuram was to get married to her colleague, Dr EA Ruwise, According to reports, he demanded a dowry of 150 sovereigns of gold, 15 acres, and a BMW car. Dr Sahana’s family was willing to give 50 sovereigns and ₹50 lakh.

Reports said that Dr Ruwise backed off from the marriage after his fiancée’s family refused his demand. The young woman’s colleagues found her unconscious in her hostel and rushed her to the hospital where she was declared dead on arrival.

Dr Ruwise, meanwhile, has denied the charge of hefty dowry demand.

“All people require money. Money is everything,” a note found in Dr Shahana’s room read. The statement sparked emotional outbursts on social media, with many demanding justice for the young doctor.

The police took Dr Ruwise into custody on Thursday, 7 December, morning, and recorded his arrest later in the afternoon.

Also read: Telugu states report most number of crimes against women in South India

Pinarayi talks tough

The government took serious note of the death with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan saying young women should be encouraged to reject those demanding dowry.

“Women should object to dowry. Their families and society should support them,” Vijayan said in Thrissur. He added that the government was treating the incident seriously.

“We need to make sure that young women and girls gain more confidence to strengthen our society. We should be able to take strict legal action against such practices (of dowry).”

The state Health Department, meanwhile. suspended Dr Ruwise from the medical college.

The police said he had deleted all WhatsApp messages, and efforts were on to retrieve them. Dr Ruwise has been charged with abetment to suicide under the relevant sections of the Dowry Prohibition Act.

According to official sources, Dr Ruwise was a resident trainee physician and the state president of the Kerala Medical Post-Graduate Association. The association ousted him soon after the incident.

Dr Shahna’s family members reportedly told the police that Dr Ruwise had harassed her for more dowry. The police said they were both friends for a long time, and decided to get married.

The woman’s father, Abdul Azeez, was employed in the Middle East. He died two years ago.

Dr Shahana’s friends said she was a gifted student.

Also read: Crime Branch takes over Dr Vandana Das murder case

Deep-rooted evil

The dowry system is still deep-rooted in the Kerala society, According to the Kerala State Women’s Commission statistics, as many as 629 instances of harassment of women for more dowry were recorded in November.

Due to a spate in dowry-related suicides in Kerala over the past three years, the government launched extensive anti-dowry campaigns aimed at government offices, educational institutions, and commercial businesses, primarily corporate networks.

Since last year, government employees must take an annual anti-dowry vow.

“The fact that Ruwise rejected Shahana’s proposal because of the dowry devastated her mentally. The wedding had been publicised, so she could not face people after he called off the marriage. We’ve found out that he had even publicly insulted her in front of other students and employees,” S Sudheer, a panchayat member known to the family said.

In response to a message from South First, Health Minister Veena George said the government would discuss an anti-dowry action plan. She also requested a report on similar cases brought to the attention of the Department of Women and Child Development.

The police records said Kerala has reported eight dowry deaths since 1 January this year.

Prevalence of dowry

Kerala has a robust gold jewellery market, reflecting the state’s longing for the yellow metal. The marriage market has been primarily fuelling the gold price in the state. However, families of young women have been compelled to find money to marry off their wards.

Swanky automobile showrooms springing up all across the state, too, cater to the marriage market, besides textile outlets, and catering services.

Despite the Kerala Dowry Prevention Act, which was passed by the state as early as 1961, more than 50 dowry-related deaths were reported in the past three years.

Still, the regressive practice of dowry has widespread social support.

The second Vijayan government has proposed a series of anti-dowry measures in recent months, such as expedited courts, a streamlined version of the round-the-clock helpline, and more vigilant and helpful police.

However, the practice should be viewed in a broader political and economic context.

Also Read: Union minister slams Kerala govt over recent suicide of farmer

Women in Kerala

Kerala has seen improvements in life expectancy, birth rate, literacy, and education thanks in part to the efforts of women. Still, female representation in political and economic leadership positions has been low.

Though women outnumber men in local bodies, they make up fewer than 10 percent of Kerala’s legislators. Out of the 21 state ministers, only three are women. Regarding the economy, women’s representation in the state’s workforce is about 20 percent, though their numbers are high in schools and colleges.

“Women are compelled to give up their financial freedom and remain confined to their homes,” women’s rights activist PE Usha told South First over the phone.

“The boost in the economy since the 1990s encouraged conspicuous consumption, which enabled practices like dowry to spread deeper in society,” she pointed out.

Beyond mere government-level actions, the dowry system must be abolished since it permeates the private sphere of the family.

“Opposition from within the institutions of marriage and family would curb the practice. Naturally, women’s economic and political empowerment will be beneficial,” according to women’s rights activist Eliyamma Vijayan, the director of Sakhi, a women’s organisation.

“Ten sovereigns is the minimum dowry required in a lower-class marriage in Kerala. Nonetheless, many homes would have given between 100 and 300 sovereigns,” Kozhikode-based social worker K Jayaram said.

The business of weddings

Women’s activist K Ajitha agreed, stating that Kerala marriages have always included gold.

“Gold is often offered as the main dowry item in various cultures, in addition to the customary thaali (the sacred chain). Additionally, since gold is the dominant status symbol in the state, the bridegroom’s family demands it more at the time of the wedding,” she said.

“Kerala’s population (3.1%) accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the nation’s gold sales,” according to S. Abdul Nazar, a spokesman of the All-Kerala Gold and Silver Merchants Association. “It is one of the main reasons for the higher price. In the past 1.5 months, a sovereign’s price has increased from ₹7,200 to ₹9,960.

Social activist and novelist Sarah Joseph claimed that marriages are seen as opportunities to improve a family’s social and economic standing. “More families are seeking advice from seasoned marriage consulting bureaus to help in dowry discussions,” she said.

Air-conditioned wedding halls, jewellery stores, automobile showrooms, and bridal garment stores are coming up even in remote places. These firms provided the bulk of media advertisements. New cars, white goods, and even “pocket money” for honeymoon have become part of wedding preparation.

When “Money is everything,” as Dr Shahana noted before taking the extreme step, deaths over dowry would keep finding space in the media.