The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dubious icon

In a country starved for celebrities and constantly on the search for people with a cause, the Indian media, government and non-governmental organizations seem to have struck gold. That too in the form of a 21-year-old woman. After all, an emancipated woman is as good as it gets. The current darling of the media and of the down-trodden women of India is Nisha Sharma, a woman who has been described by the media as “gutsy” and a “heroine” for standing up and breaking the social shackles around her, risking social stigma and public humiliation at calling off her wedding at the last minute when she found out that the groom’s family was demanding dowry.

There is no doubt that Sharma’s actions were courageous, not just for an Indian woman but also for any person getting married. But one wonders why Sharma is being held up as an icon for other women in India. The media has managed to focus attention on a few facts, while effectively placing a smokescreen in front of those which might not make the Nisha Sharma case seem as exemplary as it has been made out to be. What her case highlights more than anything else is the fact that most women in India are satisfied with their lot in life, even when given a chance to better it.

But the facts first. Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old girl, yet to complete her graduation, was to have an arranged marriage with Munish Dalal, a 25-year-old computer teacher. Her parents bought washing machines, television sets, home theatre systems and sundry other goods for the would-be groom and his brother. On the day of the wedding, Dalal’s parents asked Nisha’s parents for Rs 12 lakh and a Maruti Esteem. Not receiving a favourable response, they proceeded to slap and spit on Nisha’s father. As soon as she came to know this, she informed the police and called off the wedding.

Since then, Sharma has been quoted countless times saying that she had called off the wedding when the groom’s family asked for dowry. Perhaps her case requires us to have a new definition of dowry which does not consider asking for two home theatre systems, two television sets, two refrigerators, two cooking ranges and Rs 600,000 as demanding dowry. Therefore, the Sharmas went along with providing all these items. Or was it that the last-minute demand for Rs 12 lakh was the one which the Sharmas could not meet immediately, and made the bride realize all of a sudden that the groom’s family was actually asking for dowry'

The obvious question here is: why did Nisha Sharma or her family not call off the wedding when the Dalals made their earlier demands for dowry' Not only did they not call off the wedding, but all the dowry asked for could also be seen — in the early pictures of Sharma at her home — neatly stacked in cartons, waiting to be sent off to the Dalals. The Dalals’ demand for Rs 600,000 and a car was met without question by the Sharmas after which details were taken from the Dalals on what consumer goods were to be bought. That this did not get Nisha Sharma’s back up seems quite surprising. Some newspapers have gone to the extent of saying that Nisha called the police when the Dalals made “unreasonable” dowry demands.

A cold, hard look at the facts of the case shows that the Sharmas’ behaviour is at best inconsistent. Their enthusiasm in meeting the earlier dowry demands would have gone unnoticed, had the media spotlight not fallen on Nisha Sharma. But even then, all that the media is focussing on is how Sharma “pursed her lips and chose to do what millions of girls in her place perhaps never dared to — turn her future husband in” the moment the Dalals asked for dowry. The fact that the earlier demands for dowry were met in full by the Sharmas has been conveniently shoved under the carpet.

One would also expect that after going through an experience like this, Nisha Sharma would want to better her lot in life. A letter to the editor in a national daily lists exactly what one expects from a woman being held up as an icon to other women in India. The letter states, “What Nisha Sharma did is worthy of high praise. This is what educated girls can and should do. They should show awareness, sensibility and boldness in matters involving their future.” When most women in India are deprived of a chance to complete their education, leave alone pursue a higher education, Nisha Sharma has had the opportunity to pursue a professional degree. She is in a position to break the much-abhorred shackles society has placed on her, and to take decisions which will determine her future. The media is portraying her as a woman who stood up for her rights, and is willing to break out of the suppressive patriarchal society we live in, to take her own decisions and improve her life. But is Nisha Sharma going to start charting her own future' From the way the events have unfolded, this seems highly unlikely.

There are reasons to think this way. When it comes to the crunch, Sharma has stayed tied to her shackles when in the matter of her future plans and how she hopes to go ahead with this new lease of life. Her father is supposedly very happy with the barrage of marriage proposals which have been coming ever since his daughter hit the news. And after all this, what does the girl want' “Whatever my father and uncles choose for me.”

Meanwhile, there are many other women who have managed to take a stand against dowry. The papers have recently been inundated with reports of women who have refused to pay dowry. Most of these women are from villages, are ill-educated and not self-sufficient, and it is doubtful that they will ever be so. Whether their actions were spurred by Nisha Sharma’s is not known. Sadly, these women have been relegated to a few column inches of newsprint and summarily forgotten since. The media have found their star, however undeserving, and is not willing to shift focus yet.

But it is the young girls and impressionable women who cannot escape Nisha Sharma’s story on every news channel and newspaper, who are most at risk. This is the very section the media and the government are holding Nisha up as an icon to. These girls will not be blamed for believing that while they do have the option of putting their foot down and refusing to pay dowry to their prospective husbands, all that their future holds out for them is a husband — maybe one who should not demand dowry.

If an educated woman with a seemingly bright future would rather marry the next best thing that comes along and allow her parents to decide whom she is to marry, despite having various opportunities to try and be an equal in this world, can we really be surprised when so many women refuse to earn a living and be responsible for themselves' But the media must realize too that touting the wrong person as a role model can only take the situation from bad to worse. Most Indian women still seem to have no choice but to resign themselves to their fate.

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