“I didn’t think it would be this hard. I wouldn’t have gotten married at all if I knew..” says Gurpreet, her voice trailing off. It’s a bright day. The sun is out and it is warm, save for the nip to the breeze that’s blowing softly. She’s sitting on the grass, takeaway coffee cup in hand, looking over at the small lake next to us. She looks back at me with a determined look in her kohl laden eyes and asserts, “I wasn’t that keen on marriage anyway. It was mostly Mom and Dad.” Of their attitude about marriage, she says in Hindi, “Bas, kar hi do.” Just get it done and dusted.
Gurpreet has a Masters and was working in Chandigarh at the time of her marriage. She was content: she hung out with a close circle of friends, went out shopping, and loved watching movies. She lived with her parents, and had her own money to spend as she chose. “I didn’t really give marriage much thought”, she says.
Her parents though, had been trying to find her a groom for a while, but it was proving very difficult. “There is a lot of dowry giving and taking in Punjab,” says Gurpreet. “People ask for 30 – 40 lakhs (3 million to 4 million rupees) even before they start talking to you.” Gurpreet’s parents had a modest income and couldn’t afford that kind of money. But they were under a lot of pressure. “Our relatives, neighbours, friends……they would all ask them about when they would get me married. My mother’s friends would say ‘we’re praying for her everyday’. My parents also wanted it. Marrying off your daughter is something you have to do in Punjab. Everyone just follows (this tradition) blindly. It is not something you can escape.”
Gurpreet’s parents found a suitable match for her on a popular marriage website. Jasraj was an Australian citizen and worked and lived in Australia. She spoke to him a couple of times on Skype and thought that he seemed nice. Jasraj and his mother Manjinder visited India and met Gurpreet’s family for the first time. Jasraj’s mother said they wanted nothing by way of dowry from Gurpreet’s family, but insisted that they marry immediately. Gurpreet and her family weren’t keen on rushing it, but they caved in to pressure.
Once the wedding date was official, the demand for dowry started. “She came up with a big list,” says Gurpreet. “Jewellery and expensive clothes for her brothers, sisters, you name it. And we had to take Jasraj shopping. He bought all sorts of stuff.” And that wasn’t it. The soon to be mother in law, Manjinder, said that Gurpreet would have to re-qualify in Australia in order to work, so she demanded money for this. Gurpreet’s parents gave her 15 lakhs (1.5 million rupees) in cash. These demands did raise alarm bells in Gurpreet and her parents’ minds, but her parents believed they were investing in Gurpreet’s future. “There aren’t too many opportunities back home, so Dad thought at least I’d be able to work and then earn money in Australia”. “Overall we spent 50 – 60 lakhs (100,000 – 120,000 AUD) on the wedding”, says Gurpreet. “Aaram se.” Easily.
Wedding done, Manjinder started taunting Gurpreet and family about the wedding and how it wasn’t up to her standards. She complained that the food served at the wedding wasn’t good enough, that the jewellery her extended family were given wasn’t ornate enough, the clothes not expensive enough. “It seemed so strange that they started criticizing us so early on. But Dad thought that once I move to Melbourne, it would get better.“
Jasraj and Manjinder returned to Australia a few weeks after the wedding. Before the wedding they said they would take care of the spousal visa application and fee, but wedding over, they went back on that promise too. Gurpreet’s parents were left with no choice but to pay for the spousal visa application (INR 400,000) and Gurpreet flew to Australia to be with her new husband on a tourist visa. Her parents paid for the ticket.
In Melbourne, Gurpreet found that her new mother in law was incensed that Gurpreet didn’t come with more gold for them. “You don’t have any common sense; you or your parents! How can you come empty handed?”, she berated Gurpreet. “She almost tortured me over this,” says Gurpreet of the verbal abuse. “And they’re so stingy!” she exclaims. “They have their own house but they rent a room out. Jasraj works as an engineer and then drives a taxi on weekends. He was never home. Me and my mother in law were home alone all day. He never took me anywhere. The first time I went to the city was when I went to court to apply for an intervention order”, she states.
Not only did Gurpreet suffer verbal taunts and escalating demands for money, including a share in Gurpreet’s family property in India, but she also faced extreme scrutiny. “If I took an extra spoonful of curry, she would berate me. They actually counted the groceries they bought. One day I ate a banana and she came to me and said ‘there were 6 bananas, now there are only 5, why did you eat one?’ I mean, it’s just a banana!” she exclaims. “You’ve never seen people like this,” she asserts. “So petty, and so cheap. I didn’t even understand what was happening.”
Gurpreet’s tells me of her isolation, and it is chilling. She came to Australia with a phone, but her husband refused to buy her a SIM card. Her parents had to call her husband’s phone, and Gurpreet was never allowed to have a private conversation with them. Even her email was monitored because her husband demanded she give him her password. She was held captive in the house, deprived of any sort of contact with the outside world. “They were very controlling. They wouldn’t let me go out, not even to the park right in front of the house!” she cries. “They knew what they were doing was wrong. And they were worried I might tell someone.”
Gurpreet got lucky one day. She managed to call her mother when both Jasraj and Manjinder were out. When she told her mother of her abuse, her mother reacted with concern about the effect it would have on the marriage prospects for Gurpreet’s unmarried siblings if Gurpreet’s marriage broke down. She told Gurpreet that these kind of things happenedin a marriage, and that Gurpreet shouldn’t take it too seriously. After all, what is the worst they can do?
Gurpreet got pregnant. She says both her husband and mother in law were ‘baby crazy’ and that she bowed to pressure. During one of the routine medical checks, doctors found that Gurpreet had a condition that if not managed properly might effect the health of the baby or cause a miscarriage. Instantly, Gurpreet was now considered effectively of no use to the family because they believed she couldn’t produce a healthy baby. This became one more weapon in their arsenal, with her husband taunting her that she had deliberately hidden a condition, and that he would have never married her if he knew. One day he flew into a rage, shoved Gurpreet to the floor and kicked her in the stomach. In extreme pain, she begged him to take her to the hospital. He refused and eventually relented when she promised not to tell anyone that he was violent with her. She suffered a miscarriage and lost the baby. “Maybe I should’ve told the doctor what he did to me. But I was worried that he might go to jail…that would be an extreme thing to do to someone.”
A few months later, Gurpreet got the opportunity to accompany Manjinder on a trip to India. Gurpreet was thrilled at the prospect of going back home, even if it was temporary. What she didn’t know was that it was a ploy. When she checked her email from the airport en route to India, she saw an email from Jasraj. He accused her of lying about her health, damaging his property, and said he had withdrawn spousal support for her visa application.
Gurpreet’s parents called Jasraj from India to talk to him about the email, and Jasraj made a new demand. Cough up 30,000 – 40,000 Australian dollars or else he wouldn’t reinstate Gurpreet’s spousal visa application. Gurpreet’s parents were spent, they could afford no more. At this point, Gurpreet and her parents decided to contact Jasraj’s first wife. They had discovered while filling out Gurpreet’s spousal visa application that Jasraj was married before, and had applied for a spousal visa for his then wife. When they confronted Jasraj about this, he claimed it was a wedding on paper only, and that it didn’t come to much. Amazingly, because Gurpreet had already married him, her parents didn’t investigate. But now, backed into a corner, they did. They discovered that Jasraj’s first wife was similarly abused for dowry, and managed to get a divorce and return to India.
Gurpreet flew back to Australia to try and talk to Jasraj. Reconciling with him was still her parents’ preferred option despite the abuse, isolation and exploitation. They had invested so heavily in the marriage that there was no turning back. They hoped that Jasraj might be reasonable without his mother around. They were wrong. He didn’t answer any of Gurpreet’s calls. When she went to the house, he didn’t even open the door. Sobbing, Gurpreet pleaded with him to let her in but he simply reiterated his demand for money. As a last resort, Gupreet called the police, but her husband claimed that they were separated, and that she was on a tourist visa so he has no obligation to let her in. Gurpreet had no idea how vulnerable she would be on a tourist visa. The police referred Gurpreet to a shelter.
Gurpreet spent 4 months in three different shelters. About two months ago, she moved in with an obliging family. At the time of writing this piece, she was waiting for a protection visa. If she gets one, she can stay in Australia and start to rebuild her life, and start to heal her mental and emotional scars. If she doesn’t, she has to return to India, where in addition to her own trauma, she faces the intense stigma of being a divorced woman. Plus her in laws spread lies in her community that her health problems prevent her from having children, so marrying again will be difficult. “Plus in Punjab,” she says, “no one will marry you if you don’t give dowry. That’s why my parents agreed in the first place.”
There is a long pause. “They should’ve simply given the money to me, I would’ve studied or maybe bought myself an apartment,” she says. But now she’s stuck in an alien country with no job, money or support. The system in both countries has failed her. “The police in India should try and warn people not to marry their girls off to people they hardly know overseas. And here, they don’t understand dowry or dowry abuse. They think of it as a gift, and say we can’t do anything because you gifted it to them.” She hopes that the new dowry laws to be implemented in Victoria might help others. For her though, it might be too late. “I was in such a better position when I wasn’t married,” she says matter of factly. “Now my life is totally ruined.”
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