Noorjahan (name changed) was like any other 15-year-old Muslim girl from the old city of Hyderabad — bound by tradition, and coy, but as impetuous as the average teenager. She wore a burqa to the government school where she studied and the garment helped hide her torn school bag, a mark of poverty. Noorjahan and her friends were pranksters and the one kilometre walk to school was never short on adventure.
Both Noorjahan’s house and school are located in the Muslim-dominated Nawab Saheb Kunta, a ghetto of labyrinthine lanes. This squatter settlement that came up on the bed of a pond is only a stone’s throw away from the Nizam-era’s opulent hilltop palace named Falaknuma, now a five-star hotel belonging to the Taj group. Wealth and poverty sit side by side in this area of the old city.
Noorjahan was different from her classmates. While everyone dreamt of lucrative careers post studies in professional courses, the young girl, perhaps acutely conscious of her modest family background, harboured dreams of becoming a schoolteacher. Though rated average by her class teachers, Noorjahan tried hard to score better marks, recalls her primary schoolteacher, Amtul Habeeb.
As the summer holidays approached after a good academic year in school, Noorjahan was looking forward to spending time with her paternal aunt, Ghousia, and her cousins, one of the attractions in their house being the air cooler. The cool breeze of the boxy device was a luxury for Noorjahan, the daughter of a homemaker-bearer couple. Her father got an opportunity to work whenever there was a nikah or walima at the S.K. Garden Function Hall, a venue for weddings. The family could not afford material comforts like air coolers.
But little did she know how life would change after her brief stay at her aunt’s place. The signs were all there. All day aunt Ghousia and uncle Sikander never lost an opportunity to tell her that she must share the responsibility of taking care of her poverty-ridden family. Their brainwashing worked; her stay there changed Noorjahan. She soon lost interest in going to school. When the school reopened after the summer vacation, there was no sign of Noorjahan in the eighth grade. “We were surprised and sent a word to her brother. Now, after two months, we hear this unfortunate news of her marriage,” Amtul says.
When the moon was sighted and fasting during the holy month of Ramzan began May-end, Noorjahan got the first hint of what lay in store for her. Her aunt, uncle and their “friends” began visiting frequently. In hushed tones, a marriage proposal, and how the family would benefit from it, was discussed. And then one day Noorjahan was summoned. A “good marriage proposal” from an Omani had come, she was told, and with it came a mehr of “thousands of rupees”, a house, an air cooler, a two-wheeler for her father, and a monthly remittance of ₹5,000.
Little Noorjahan was shocked to hear the groom’s age. He was 65, twenty years older than her father. But as her aunt and uncle hammered away, she gave in. After all, her father was not getting any younger and his meagre daily wage of ₹300 troubled her. Noorjahan became quiet and withdrawn. All that was required now was for her to say ‘Nikah qubool hai’ (I agree to the marriage) in the presence of a qazi (who performs a marriage), after which a bundle of notes would be pressed into her father’s hand and she would be required to sign on blank papers which would be used later in the event of a divorce. A file of fake documents, including a voter identity card and an Aadhaar card, would be furnished to show her age as 18, and a video of a grand lifestyle she could lead in West Asia would be passed around for her relatives to see.
The modus operandi
Noorjahan is not an isolated case of ‘Arab nikah’, as this type of Muslim marriage is known in Hyderabad. The modus operandi is the same. Detailed conversations with multiple sources in the police and the community reveal the sad picture of how a group of dalals (touts) persuade vulnerable, impoverished families with three or four minor daughters with a story of how sheikhs hold the promise of altering their lives for the better. In some cases, they say this is a ‘short-term marriage of convenience’ in exchange for money.
Once convinced, the family pressures their young daughters. Touts produce documents to show the girl as an adult and her signature is taken on blank bond papers, to come in useful later in the case of a divorce. Meanwhile, the touts enter into a deal with the sheikhs, who fly into the country and camp in local hotels and guest houses once the deal is sealed. A pliable qazi is located, and the marriage solemnised within minutes. In most cases, the sheikh spends some time with the little girl and leaves for home after divorcing her. In the last seven years, over a dozen such child marriages to wealthy Arabs have been performed, at least two to three a year, most of these marriages lasting from a few days to a few months.
Such marriages have become public largely on account of cases registered in five police station limits in Hyderabad. Many more may have escaped the radar, such as the case of a 17-year-old girl who had approached the Santoshnagar Police Station stating that her parents and touts were trying to perform her marriage for the sixth time in January 2014. Her five marriages in the previous two years had ended in divorce, she had said in her statement.
The girl’s ordeal began soon after she completed tenth grade. She was first married to Basheer of Nagpur, an NRI, and then to Jamal of Pune, both for ₹30,000 each. Next in line were two Saudi sheikhs after payments ranging from ₹50,000 to ₹1 lakh were made. Her fifth marriage was to a Bahrain national, and the sixth to a Sudanese, both weddings together bringing home her parents ₹2 lakh. But it was before the sixth marriage that she fled, and with the help of a local NGO, filed a complaint against her parents. In the complaint, she narrated how her parents spent all the money they received in leading a luxurious lifestyle. Her father, who had four wives, got her two sisters married in the same way in return for money.
But unlike her, not many Hyderabadi Muslims want to speak about this child bride bazaar, let alone acknowledge it as commonplace. With a close vigil on such practices, however, the Arab nikahs appear to have come down, even if they show no signs of ending.
The heyday of such marriages was in the late 1970s and ’80s, and the chosen months were July, August and September when wealthy Arab sheikhs would dash to Hyderabad, indulge in multiple marriages with the help of touts, and then scoot home.
When the marriages did not work back home, the sheikh would simply say ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’ and dispatch the young girl to Hyderabad with the promise of sending maintenance, which would never come. The police estimate hundreds of such contract marriages. A few years ago, Hyderabad saw the unusual spectacle of these hapless women left behind by sheikhs hitting the road seeking support for their livelihood. Many of them have ended up as domestic helps.
In the 1990s, ten-year-old child bride Ameena’s case shot into the limelight when flight attendant Amrita Ahluwalia rescued her from Yahya al-Sagih, a 60-year-old Saudi who married her and was taking her to his country. Asked why she was married off like that, her father, Badruddin, an autorickshaw driver, had this to say: “I earn ₹20 to ₹40 a day, which is hardly enough to feed my wife, six daughters, and two sons.”
Duped by relatives and touts
Noorjahan’s case is somewhat different. While a majority of those who got married to sheikhs were left behind after short-term contract marriages, her husband, Ahmed, took her to Oman. But even before the wedding mehndi on her palms dried, she ran into problems.
Noorjahan frantically made calls to her parents to rescue her, often crying that she was treated worse than a slave. When her father called Ahmed, the sheikh made it clear that he would not send the girl back till the family returned the mehr of ₹5 lakh. By now it was evident to the family that they had been duped not only by the sheikh, but also by their own relatives and a ring of touts.
With no trace of Sikander, Ghousia, or their friends, Noorjahan’s mother knocked on the doors of the Falaknuma Police Station. Police investigations have so far revealed that Sikander has arranged the marriages of several women with Arabs. “I made a mistake by marrying her off like that and relying on Sikander,” laments Noorjahan’s father. “A poor but young rickshaw-puller would have been better. All he has given us so far is ₹7,000, a used Honda Activa, and an air cooler.”
Falaknuma Inspector of Police P. Yadagiri says they have booked cases under provisions of the Child Marriage Act, POCSO (Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act), and Sections of the Indian Penal Code relating to rape, trafficking, and cheating by the people named by Noorjahan’s parents. Though the parents are equally culpable, the police is taking a sympathetic view in this case.
But the case got bigger and bigger. Given the gravity of the situation, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mohammed Tajuddin Ahmed, was appointed as the investigating officer. As the news spread via national TV channels and social media, Union Welfare Minister Maneka Gandhi tweeted seeking the help of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Even as the Indian Embassy, the Government of India, and the Government of Telangana try their best to get her back, Noorjahan’s plight has once again brought into focus the poor economic and living conditions of Muslims in the old city of Hyderabad.
Why are there child brides?
The narratives here have common elements: illiteracy, religious beliefs, and a desperation to earn money, with the dubious role of qazis thrown in. Families who marry off their minor girls often disappear to escape detection. “Among a section of Muslims, there is this belief that attaining puberty is enough to marry off the girls, not when the girls turn 18. There are families in Hafeez Baba Nagar who find nothing wrong in minor girls being married off to elderly Arab sheikhs. Then there are qazis who advocate marriage at the age of 16, their contention being that sexual desires start around that age,” says Jameela Nishat, a social activist who runs an NGO called Shaheen that works for gender justice and rehabilitation of child brides deserted by sheikhs.
But not many are as outspoken as Jameela and no Muslim politician has come forward to offer his or her views on this regressive practice, let alone condemn the marriages. Neither has the practice of child marriage to sheikhs found political traction, nor has it entered popular discourse. Mazher Hussain, executive director of the Confederation of Voluntary Associations, a national network of voluntary organisations working for communal harmony and empowerment, says the trend is “nothing but trafficking in the garb of nikah.” He says it is a “gross misuse of nikah”. Though poverty is a factor, the bigger danger is the acceptance of this practice as a norm, Mazher says.
A ritual left behind
Hyderabad had a long history of Nizams hiring Chaush Arabs, mostly from Yemen, as military guards who were lodged in barracks (now known by the corrupted colloquial name of Barkas). These Arabs brought along with them the ritual of paying dowry and offering gifts to families who gave their girls in marriage. When oil was struck in Saudi Arabia and other parts of West Asia, and the situation turned tumultuous in Hyderabad in the late 1940s, a number of Chaush Arabs preferred to return to their country, taking with them their local wives and relatives. But the ritual stayed behind. Payment for brides became the vogue, although at that time the intention for this was supposedly good. It was meant to help the families of the brides and prevent the decline of economic status of Muslims after the rule of the seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, ended in 1948, resulting in the merger of the erstwhile Hyderabad State with the Indian Union. “This has now degenerated into this practice of buying child brides,” Mazher says. “We need to attack this norm by discrediting it much like how the practice of Sati was discredited.” Also a section of qazis, who follow a system of appointing naib qazis (assistant qazis) who perform these child marriages, have to be blamed, he says.
The qazis don’t agree. “Qazis are being blamed unnecessarily. We go by the documents submitted to us and not by the people who request us to perform the marriage. Will it be proper to lift the veil and see how old the bride is?” asks Syed Shakir Ali, a qazi from Nampally. “Yes, there are some unscrupulous qazis, but to say everyone is like that is wrong. The onus is on the parents of the bride. They ought to be careful. Before performing the nikah, I insist on seeing the passport, or the Aadhaar card, or the voter identity card and (conduct the marriage) in the presence of the father or the guardian and two witnesses. If somebody forges one of these documents, how can the qazi be held responsible? What is the Telangana government doing to end the social menace?” he asks.
In response, the Secretary of the Minorities Welfare Department of the Telangana government, Syed Omar Jaleel, says, “The government plans to bring out an ordinance and later a legislation banning all foreigners from marrying girls here unless they come with proper documents or a declaration before immigration authorities stating that their purpose of visit is to marry a woman of statutorily mandated marriageable age and that they would take care of them,” he says. “The man will be liable to undergo imprisonment of seven years under Section 196 of the IPC (if found guilty).”
To address poverty, which is at the root of this problem, the government is proposing to launch a women empowerment programme. This will involve extending loans for women and offering financial assistance of ₹50,000 to each family to perform the marriage of their daughter. Mr. Jaleel also spoke of revamping the outdated Qazis Act of 1880 and changing rules to make the qazis more accountable.
Economic support to the poor and compulsory education of girls could address this issue, says a young girl who was married off at the age of 12 to a 70-year-old man from Oman. She described to this correspondent her marriage that lasted all of three months, the whole time during which the old man stayed with her in a hotel room before leaving her.
“I was helpless,” she said. “My father was an alcoholic and my mother worked as a domestic help. Under the influence of dalals, they married me off to an elderly Arab. He promised to take me with him soon after the marriage. But he failed to keep his promise. One day he uttered talaq thrice over the phone and slammed the phone down. That was the last time I heard from him.”
She now has a baby to look after and works as a domestic help. She also attends tailoring classes in the hope of securing a future for her child. At least her daughter must get an education that she had to sadly forgo. Dreams of the next generation must not die young.