Nestled in the foothills of Gutlibagh, Kashmir, the hamlet of Baba Wayil offers its residents a simple, tranquil and traditional life. Its one thousand or so villagers pass their time farming walnuts, trading Pashmina shawls and attending Friday prayers at the local mosque. Many have stayed all their lives in the community, which proudly traces its roots back 750 years to when the Sufi saint Syed Baba Abdul Razzaq arrived from Samarkand, Bukhara (modern day Baghdad) to preach and promote Islam. It was he who laid the foundation of Baba Wayil, later dying and being buried in the village that bears his name. While tradition runs deep in Baba Wayil, the village is known locally for its modern stance against the payment of wedding dowries, an age-old social practice in which the bride’s family is expected to make payment to the groom’s. The dowry system was made illegal across India in 1961, having been blamed for encouraging the oppression, torture and even murder of women, usually at the hands of the groom’s family in cases where the payment was deemed insufficient. Yet it remains a widespread problem in a country where arranged marriages are the norm. In Uttar Pradesh on Sunday a man beat his wife to death for failing to meet his dowry demands and in Jammu and Kashmir, it is not unknown for brides in dowry disputes to be set on fire. In 2019, police in the territory recorded eight dowry-related deaths against a wider backdrop of gender-based violence in which 3,069 crimes against women – including rape, molestation and domestic violence – were reported, and 381 kidnappings of women for forcible marriage. Baba Wayil took its stance against dowries decades ago, denouncing the system as going against the teachings of their founding saint after a meeting of village elders in the late 1980s. Not only were dowry payments causing violence, but they were putting an increasingly unacceptable financial strain on families. What’s more, argued the elders, the social harms caused by the system meant it was un-Islamic. How conflict in Kashmir has affected women’s reproductive health As a consequence, tough measures were introduced banning anyone who demanded a dowry from entering the local mosque or from being buried in the local graveyard. “We do what Allah and His Messenger advised us in the Koran,” said local imam Basheer Ahmed while addressing worshippers at a recent Friday prayers. Rather than the bride’s family paying the groom’s, in Baba Wayil today it is the other way round. In 2004, the village elders drafted a document not only forbidding the groom’s family from demanding anything from the bride’s side, but indicating that the groom’s side should pay the bride 50,000 rupees (US$673). This includes 20,000 rupees as “mehr” (a gift from the groom at the time of marriage contract), 20,000 rupees for bridal clothes, 10,000 rupees for other expenses and 3,000 rupees for the veil. Since the system came into effect, village elders say there have been no cases of domestic violence or between families-in-law. Indeed, if anything, the next generation in the village are showing signs of even abandoning payments from the groom. “My elder daughter, Iqra Altaf Shah, is getting happily married under this dowry-free system. In fact, she is of this thought that the ‘mehr’ in her case should not be more than 900 rupees; a much smaller amount than what the authorities of the village have decided,” said the village head Altaf Shah, a 45-year-old tailor. Iqra Altaf, 25, is pursuing a Masters in Commerce from Indira Gandhi Open University. “There are some false notions about our village that the people living out here are backward and do not come from high education backgrounds. But this is all baseless; we the girls of our village are well educated and know the traits of living a happy and simple life even after marriage,” she said. The literacy rate is above 70 per cent in Baba Wayil. In Kashmir, the Indian government is always watching If a young woman wants to continue her studies or work after marriage, she gets full support from her husband and in-laws. Both genders are well aware of their rights. “We compete with boys if they secure higher grades than us. Girls are shining in the village when it comes to education. We are not being forced for anything. We have freedom of choice and we enjoy our rights freely under the banner of our society and the system,” said bride to-be Saima Muzaffar, 22, a recent college graduate. Her wedding is taking place next week and will be a simple one. “My in-laws and my family want a simple marriage ceremony, without any demand or exchange of dowry.” She added that the youth of Baba Wayil were even helping to spread the village’s modern ways further afield, refusing dowries when marrying outside the village. “When we marry boys outside the village, we do the same with them. There is no give and take, or in between. We follow our tradition strictly,” said Saima.