Stark images of Bangladesh dowry death reveal severe injustice

Lys Anzia with photojournalist Turjoy Chowdhury – WNN Features

Bibi Zohora's mother with a picture of Bibi
Dowry victim Bibi Zohora’s mother shows a picture of her daughter before she was married as Bibi’s younger brother looks concerned as he stands next to his mother. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury

(WNN) Dhaka, BANGLADESH, SOUTHERN ASIA: The custom of paying a dowry to a groom in Bangladesh is not a new one. But increasing deaths connected to rising financial pressure from a groom’s dowry on a new bride, and her family, can place a women in danger of abuse, misfortune and even death.

When 19-year-old teenager and wife Bibi Zohora was admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) her condition was critical. On admittance to the hospital it was determined she had a broken neck, but she was still alive.

But Bibi’s life had deteriorated.

Psychologically tortured by her in-laws to pay money for a marriage dowry, the story of Bibi’s life was a troubled one. Under increasing pressure Bibi and her family were unable to pay the dowry fees that seemed more like extortion.

On the day Bibi had come to the hospital emergency room with her parents she faced what too many women in Bangladesh, and India, face when they are unable to pay their dowry fee. Fear and abuse from her husband and his family. Bibi tried to commit suicide by hanging herself from a mango tree.

Did psychological pressure, indignity and harassment lead to her death? Some experts say yes.

“…the effects of harassment have driven some young girls and women in Bangladesh to commit suicide,” says UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund.

While this is not the case for Bibi, not all dowry suicides are what they seem.

In the 1994 Hem Chand v. State of Haryana dowry death case in India’s High Court of Punjab & Haryana, murder charges and sentencing against a husband after his wife committed suicide found that her hanging suicide was staged. It was determined under the law that “if the deceased had been subjected, by such person [the husband], to cruelty or harassment for or in connection with demand for dowry…then the court shall presume that such a person has caused the dowry death.”

At the time it was found in court that Hem Chand had in fact strangled his wife and simulated what appeared to be her suicide. For this he was initially charged with a life sentence. But on appeal Chand’s sentence was changed to 10 years in prison.

Perhaps the Mango tree where Bibi attempted to end her own life was the only option Bibi felt she had left after facing intimidation and threats to pay money to her husband and his family. There is no answer available to know the first-hand details of her suffering. No formal case ever reached the court following her death.

Under the 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women violence against women is defined as: “…any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Tied to her bed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in the Dhaka hospital, among 21 other critical-needs patients, Bibi was left marginalized even in death. Instead of attending to her medical needs a group of doctors largely ignored her as they seemed engrossed in their own personal group conversation in another part of the room, conveyed photojournalist Turjoy Chowdhury who was present as he documented Bibi’s death in the hospital.

Her parents were the only attendants in the room trying to look after their gasping daughter at the time, Chowdhury said. It was only when Bibi’s mother realized her daughter had stopped breathing that she began to grieve publicly and loudly. This was when the previously ‘occupied’ medical team moved closer to Bibi’s bed.

“The doctors hurried to Bibi Zohora and pretended to do everything possible-thumping, pumping and what not,” outlined Chowdhury.

“Sensing the presence of [a] camera, one of the doctors gaped at the ECG monitor reading [outloud] LOSS OF SIGNAL. He posed as if doing a grave [serious] job, though the ECG monitor was not connected with the patient,” the photojournalist added.

Zohora's mother-in-law defends her mistreatment of Zohora
Bibi Zohora’s mother-in-law meets with photographer Turjoy Chowdury as other family members stand nearby. “With all the eyes and fingers, Zohora’s mother-in-law defends their torture on her for dowry,” shares the photojournalist. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury

Today there is no doubt that Bibi Zohora was a clear victim of dowry death.

Suicide is not the only form these deaths can take. Poisoning, burning, beating, acid attack and other forms of violence inflicted on a woman can be used. Cases have also revealed that some dowry deaths have been disguised to ‘appear’ to be suicide, or an accidental death when, in fact, they are not. This type of deception is made when an attacker, or attackers, work to escape legal prosecution. But how can the law in Bangladesh move to protect women?

“[Law] Drafters should take into account that dowry-related murders may be disguised as suicides,” outlines UN super-agency UN Women covering the issue of ‘aiding and abetting suicide’ in their End Violence Against Women and Girls Now campaign.

The culture of dowry worldwide is now being used in too many circumstances to raise monies by abusing, harming and killing women, say advocates. The lack of a legal court case for Bibi Zohora is only one of many unreported cases that are too often happening under the radar of the courts.

“While I was shooting my very first photo-story of dowry victim Zohora…she passed away in front of me,” added photojournalist Turjoy Chowdhury. “At that moment, the experience made me mentally unstable and I wasn’t able to sleep for at least a week,” he continued.

Amendment and enforcement of the law in Bangladesh is the only way women like Bibi Zohora can remain safe, say advocates who are working to stop violence against women inside Bangladesh.

“Husbands consider their wives’ income as a source of wealth accumulation. This must be acknowledged as reality and the Dowry Prohibition Act amended,” outlines Bangladesh-born author, political science professor and Canada post-doctoral fellow Farah Deeba Chowdhury, in her report for the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family at Oxford Journals.

In the first six months of 2013, 255 women in Bangladesh suffered severely under dowry-related violence, outlined journalist Udisa Islam with the Dhaka Tribune. Out of those 255 women the number of those who died from their suffering reveals a critical epidemic in dowry-based violence in the region.

“Of them, 163 women were harassed and tortured, 86 were murdered for failing to meet demands for dowry and six women committed suicide,” the Dhaka Tribune reporter added.

Attitudes about dowry in Bangladesh may be swayed by a traditional interpretation of religion, especially for those who are Muslim or Hindu. The practice spans centuries to pre-Greek asia, Endo Japan and China, as well as Rome. Later it moved from exclusive money meant for the bride alone, to money that is given to the bride’s husband and his family.

“While Bangladesh recognizes Islam as its official religion, dowry continuously contradicts both religion and the law. According to the Qu’ran, receiving dowry from the bride’s family is haram, forbidden by the Islamic law; it is the husband’s family that should provide mohorana, money for the bride’s family,” shares Sri Lankan reporter Kaushalya Ruwanthika Ariyathilaka in a story for Dispatches International.

“Statistics show that 88% of the recently married Muslim wives in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, did not receive their mohorana, but were forced to give a dowry,” Ariyathilaka added.

Regardless of the origin of dowry culture and the fact that dowry is outlawed in both India and the Bangla region, a large number of women in Bangladesh and India are showing a steep rise in violence connected to dowry. As a fatal victim of dowry violence, Bibi Zohora has been joined by women in India who, according to the India’s National Crime Bureau, who die from dowry-related violence everyday once each hour.

“Women in Bangladesh are still in a vulnerable situation in the society,” outlined photojournalist Chowdhury. “To reduce violence against women, society should ensure gender equality, no economic gap between genders, social consciousness and proper implementation of law and order,” he added.

As a photographer who wants deeply to expose injustice in Bangladesh society, Turjoy Chowdhury visually captured this dowry death up-close when he stood before Bibi’s hospital bed to document this photo essay:

Bibi Zohora lies in hospital bed
Bibi Zohora with a severely broken neck lies unattended at the ICU of DMCH. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury
Zohora's compassionate mother reaches over to her daughter
With a compassionate face Bibi Zohora mother reaches over to her daughter. “Mother examines if her daughter is alive,” says photojournalist Chowdhury. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury
A doctor looks at an EKG machine that is not monitoring Bibi
A doctor looks at the ECG – Electrocardiography machine pretending to look for any sign of Bibi’s heart rate, but photographer Chowdhury has conveyed, the ECG machine was not connected to Bibi and not monitoring her at the time of her death. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury
Bibi Zohora mother wails on Bibi's death
Bibi Zohora’s mother’s wails of grief are ignored as she realizes her daughter has died. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury
Mango tree where Bibi Zohora killed herself
Bibi’s mother looks out and motions to the Mango tree in back yard of the home where Bibi grew up where her daughter committed suicide. “A fallen log and a pile of dry leaves of the mango tree from where Zohora hanged herself are seen through a window,” outlines photographer Chowdhury. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury

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To see the complete photo essay by photojournalist Turjoy Chowdhury on dowry violence in Bangladesh link to: A Tale of Bibi Zohora

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For more information on this topic:

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women,” United Nations General Assembly, December 1993;

Dowry Related Violence Against Women in Bangladesh,” Commission on Human Rights, Asian Legal Resource Centre, February 2005;

Legal Approaches, Reforms, Different Areas of Laws, Assessment of the Effectiveness of Particular Legal Framework/Provisions, Lesson Learned, Good Practices & Highlighted Promising Practices in Bangladesh,” United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, June 2009;

The Economics of Dowry and Brideprice,” Siwan Anderson, Journal of Economic Perspectives, May 2013.

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Turjoy Chowdhury has been working in the field of photography since 2008. “Documentary Photography attracts me most because of the opportunity to capture the truth,” he says. As a Peace Ambassador (2008) for the Asian-Pacific Children Convention (APCC) organized by BRIDGE Club International Organization (BCIO-Japan), Chowdhury is currently in his fourth year of college level studies in Architecture at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Human rights and social justice journalist Lys Anzia is the founder and former executive editor of international award-winning WNN – Women News Network. In addition to WNN her written and copyediting work can be seen in The Guardian Development Network, Thomson Reuters Trustlaw, AlertNet, Vital Voices, The Nobel Women’s Initiative, and many other publications.

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