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‘Evil customs’: why a Kashmiri village abandoned dowries | Global development

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Babawayil, in the foothills of the Zabarwan mountains by the Sind River, is a typical village in Indian-administered Kashmir. Groups of men and women sit on their lawns breaking open green husks of walnuts, freshly gathered from the giant trees shading the sleepy hamlet. Other villagers are busy in the paddy fields bringing in the harvest. Harud, the harvest season, is usually busy.

Most of the 150 households make their living from farming and weaving pashmina shawls.

The village, however, is one of the rare places in south Asia that has banned dowries and abandoned the custom of throwing lavish weddings.

Weddings in this part of the world are usually expensive and can cost a family’s life savings. Money is spent on elaborate meals served to hundreds of guests – relatives, friends and neighbours.

As part of the dowry, the bride’s family gives gifts – household appliances, jewellery, cash and sometimes even a car for the groom. Often, the wedding happens only after the dowry is fixed.

Bashir Ahmad
Bashir Ahmad, imam of Babawayil mosque, found stories about dowries and expensive weddings ‘disturbing’. Photograph: Aakash Hassan

Dowries have been illegal in India for the past six decades, but the custom is deeply entrenched. An estimated 20 women a day are murdered or kill themselves in the country because of dowry demands. Every year there are more than 8,000 “dowry deaths”.

“The stories reaching here about dowry and expensive weddings were disturbing,” said Bashir Ahmad, imam of the village mosque. “I would always wonder how we would be able to marry our children with these traditions.”

Ahmad was among 20 village elders who met in the winter of 2004 to discuss how these “evil customs” could be stopped. After days of deliberation, the elders presented their ideas to villagers.

They proposed that the bride’s family would not pay anything towards the wedding. The groom’s family would pay 900 Indian rupees (£9) as mehr – an Islamic obligation that the groom has to pay to the bride in the form of money or possessions when they marry – and 15,000 rupees (£150) to the bride’s family. The groom would arrange for 50kg (110lb) of meat and 40kg of rice for the wedding feast, and only 40 people from the groom’s side were allowed to attend.

Previously, hundreds of guests could sit down to the wazwan, a multicourse feast of Kashmiri cuisine served at weddings, and dowries could reach hundreds of thousand of rupees.

Babawayil village
Babawayil village, in Kashmir’s Sind valley. Photograph: Aakash Hassan

Villagers were quick to accept the new rules. Since then, there have been no expensive weddings held in Babawayil and no dowries have been given.

Last year, villagers updated the regulations: the groom’s family now has to pay 50,000 rupees (£500) to the bride’s family, which includes 20,000 of mehr, to account for inflation. There is no wedding feast – only dates and tea can be served – and just three people are allowed to accompany the groom.

“I am proud that everyone in the village is following these laws,” said Ahmad, whose two sons and two daughters have married in the last few years.

The villagers say there has not been a single reported case of violence or abuse against a woman since the rules were introduced, and there have been no divorces.

There is also peer pressure to follow the rules. Ahmad says anyone who does not abide by them is ostracised in the community.

“Our inspiration comes from our religion,” says Iqra Altaf, 25, a postgraduate student who recently got married.

A traditional Kashmiri dancer at a wedding
A traditional dance at a Kashmiri wedding. The ceremony and marriage feast could once have cost a family its life savings. Photograph: Altaf Qadri/EPA

“Customs like dowry and lavish weddings are only making the life of women difficult,” she said. “It is leading to crimes and discrimination against women, even people do not want to have a girl child because of these issues. We have to end this menace.”

Altaf says she asked her husband to spend even less on their wedding than the rules allowed, to set an example to others.

Villagers say they are happy to see how the community has changed for the better. “We are content that our daughters would not face any harassment. And people who would otherwise spend huge sums of money on marriages are actually spending their savings on fruitful things like better education for their children,” said Ghulam Nabi Shah, 65, a retired government official from the village.

“I am trying to convince my relatives in other villages to keep weddings simple … I want to see Kashmir changing before I leave this world.”

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Too hot to handle: can our bodies withstand global heating?

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Extreme heat can kill or cause long-term health problems – but for many unendurable temperatures are the new normal

The impact of extreme heat on the human body is not unlike what happens when a car overheats. Failure starts in one or two systems, and eventually it takes over the whole engine until the car stops.

That’s according to Mike McGeehin, environmental health epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When the body can no longer cool itself it immediately impacts the circulatory system. The heart, the kidneys, and the body become more and more heated and eventually our cognitive abilities begin to desert us – and that’s when people begin fainting, eventually going into a coma and dying.”

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Polish TV sabotages Tusk press briefing

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Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk clashed with Polish propaganda outlet TVP in Warsaw Tuesday. A TVP reporter asked him why Tusk’s party wanted Poland to leave the EU. “This is beyond imagination … I won’t answer such absurdities,” Tusk, whose Civic Platform party is pro-EU, said, before a prickly exchange ensued. TVP also muted MEPs who said Poland should face EU rule-of-law sanctions in its coverage of a Strasbourg debate.

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Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted ‘Mercedes’ frigate | USA

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The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.

Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”

At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.

Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the 'HMS Victory' shipwreck in 2009.
Odyssey workers hoisting a cannon from the ‘HMS Victory’ shipwreck in 2009.

The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.

The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.

“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”

The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.

In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.

Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the "Ocean Alert," a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.
Spanish Civil Guard officers watching the “Ocean Alert,” a vessel owned by Odyssey Marine Explorations, near Gibraltar in 2007.ANTON MERES (REUTERS)

Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.

These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.

The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.

Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”

Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”

The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”

Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.

After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.

While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”

Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.



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