Marriage is considered a social institution on which larger structures of society like family are built. In India especially, marriages are idealised to be the most important decision of one’s life that is generally made by parents on behalf of their children. This may not always be in the best interests of young people, especially young girls. India has managed to eliminate several vicious practices associated with marriage, like child marriages, but newer evils like contract marriages have begun to tarnish faith in this social institution.
Contract marriages have been prevalent in Hyderabad since the 1970s. It has been a practice in parts of the Old City, particularly Barkas, which has a large Yemeni settlement. Arab Sheikhs are the usual ‘customers’ in the area. Though the practice is seen by many as a social menace, very little is being done to correct it even as several girls fall prey to such trade-offs annually.
Bibi Begum, 18, was shifting on her feet while explaining how her family situation led her to a marriage agreement with a 32-year-old Sudanese national, Ahmed Faruq. Her family consists of her mother and six sisters and their earnings depend on the daily chores done by her mother in the houses of the Old City. None of them have studied beyond primary school. “I married him as I was promised a good future and monetary support for my family members. He kept me in a lodge for five days and asked me to work on my passport documents. After he went back, he was in touch for a month over the phone and also sent me ₹2000. He never came back for me nor helped my family, in fact, he did not even come for talaq. I pleaded with him over the phone for a divorce and at last, I took khula (returning of wedding gifts as a form of divorce) from him,” she says.
The case of Bibi Begum is only one such sad story. Even minor girls are fed into these contracts by specialised brokers in the city who promise huge compensations and a secure future. However, such agreements end up bringing nothing except dejection and low self-esteem for these women.
Muneera Begum, a resident of Moghal Pura, was pushed into one such marriage seven years ago. “I got married when I was 11. My father insisted that I get married. I was married to an Arab Sheikh who was 65 years old, same as my father’s age. He lived with me in a lodge for two months and later left for his country saying he will come back to take me. When I got pregnant, he kept pressuring me for abortion and when I retaliated, he uttered talaq thrice on the phone and never called back. I did not even know what talaq meant at that age.” Such unfortunate instances are realities for many girls in the old city who await some strong social action to end the system of contract marriages.
Shaheen is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Hyderabad, which is working for this cause and other women’s issues. They have conducted quite a few sting operations in the city to rescue girls from such dangerous traps. In the helpless scenarios where these girls are clueless about how to go on with life after the fallout of a contract marriage, the NGO has initiated several awareness programmes to let girls know about their rights. “We try creating job opportunities and building the confidence of such victims. We want to empower women, make them assertive about when to say no,” says Jameela Nishat who heads Shaheen.
“The brokers and Qazis, both, are equally involved in this process. They take a good portion of the amount these men pay and give the rest to the families involved. One of the Qazis from the old city even had bedrooms for the couples in his office to live right after the nikah,” claims Mohammed Maqsood Ahmed, a lawyer based in the city. After complaints were lodged by locals, he was arrested and his Qazi licence was revoked.
Mohammed Asadullah, Chief Executive Officer, Wakf Board, says, “State Minorities Welfare Association has cancelled a few licenses of those who are guilty of arranging contract marriages.” He explained that the board is only responsible for issuing marriage and divorce certificates while cancellation of licenses is in the hands of the State Minorities Welfare Association. Under the Kazi Act of 1880, their cases are dealt and licenses are monitored. The victims are not given any aid from the Hyderabad Minorities Welfare Association. When asked about the reasons, Mohammed Ashfaquddin, Deputy Tahsildar of the Association, stated that the funds to help such victims do not come under their department.
NGOs in the city help the affected women come out of their dire conditions and learn to cater to their needs. They teach them stitching, mehendi designing and other skills so that they can earn a living. Their initial focus is on regaining and rebuilding their confidence so that they start life afresh.
“I earn my own money and live on my own terms. I am happy to be able to send my daughter to a good school. I was not educated and forced into marriage but I will empower my daughter through education,” says Muneera Begum. When asked about whether she would consider marrying again, she smiled softly and said, “I don’t need a man in my life, I was brought up with the idea that a man is responsible for women’s needs but my thoughts have changed over the years. I might be uneducated but I can earn and take care of myself and my daughter.” Bibi Begum, on the other hand, is getting married again with a local Hyderabadi and has overcome her fears, hoping to start a new life with her fiancé. “We are trying to arrange funds for her to buy new clothes and jewellery,” says her mother Haseena Begum with a lot of hope in her eyes.
Although the cases are many, only a few get reported. Karam Komireddy is a lawyer who has worked on such issues. “We book these cases under the Indian Penal Code as cheating and breach of trust. The marriage is first nullified and then we try to get the culprits punished,” he says. V. Ramulu, Joint Director of Women and Child Development confirmed that they have a helpline for such victims, “They can make a call to 1098 and we send the task force to rescue the girls.They are also kept in rehabilitation if required.”
The city police also consider this as a serious offence. “Our concern is not their age but that the girl should be given respect and dignity after the wedding. She should not be prone to sexual abuse and divorce. We also conduct awareness programmes with victims to make people conscious of such practices,” says V. Satyanarayana, DCP, South Zone. There are very few official complaints registered on this issue. The laws implicating NRIs are weak and they get bail in a matter of few days.
The dreams that young girls weave around the idea of marriage are being crushed in monetary transactions that lead to sexual abuse and a lifetime of solitude and despair. While the world debates on matters of gender equality, here are a lot of girls that desperately and hopefully wait for someone to raise a strong voice and to do away with contracts that exploit them in the name of marriage.