She is 17 years old and studies BCom at a private college in Malappuram district of Kerala. Local newspapers recently had reports of her story—a girl brought up in an orphanage who was forced to marry a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, a man on a short visit who divorced her soon after he returned to his country. It was the latest instance of an old practice known as Arabikalyanam (‘Arab wedding’) that is still prevalent in the Malabar region, with Muslim girls of poor families its usual victims.
What marks the 17-year-old out is her bravery in filing a police complaint against the man who married her, and going public—if anonymously—with the sordid story of her exploitation. The media has kept her identity covered. Her classmates have been discussing her courage in college, she says, and she has even joined her friends in these discussions without revealing herself as the girl they’re talking about. “Nobody except my best friend knows it,” she says with a smile, “So I join them when they express sympathy for the victim.”
It was on 13 June 2013 that the 17-year-old was married to Jasem Muhammad Abdul Karim Abdul al-Ahmed, a 29-year-old soldier of the UAE. Ironically, he too was born to a woman who’d been a victim of Arabikalyanam a generation ago. His mother Sulekha, who was born in Kerala too, was once married to an Arab citizen. Like many such marriages, hers also ended soon after the honeymoon and her husband’s return. In most such cases, the mother is left to raise the child alone, but Jasem was taken after class six to the UAE by his father.
According to the girl, her marriage with Jasem was initiated by the authorities of CIESCO, an orphanage that was her home since she was five (her divorced mother was in penury). “I completed my Plus Two exams and was on vacation,” she recounts, “On the morning of 4 June, I was shown the photograph of a man and told that he was the groom they’d found me. The warden at the orphanage said it would be a good alliance for my whole family. They also said that it would be beneficial for the orphanage and its other inmates. Till then, I had not even thought of marriage. I wanted to continue my studies and get a job.” She, however, was unable to resist the pressure, and CIESCO’s officers assured her that the groom’s family would let her continue her studies.
After the nikaah, she realised nothing of that sort was going to happen. He did not know Malayalam and spoke only English and Arabic. “I could not understand a word of his,” she says, “I was able to follow English a bit, but it was difficult to comprehend his pronunciation, and he wasn’t able to follow what I said.”
She felt he had some love for her in the beginning, but his mother used to say nasty things about her. “She often ridiculed me, referring to my life in the orphanage. The day after the marriage, I was asked to clean the house. [My mother-in-law] was sitting on a sofa and watching TV. To sweep the floor, I tried to turn off the fan but pressed the wrong button and the TV got switched off. She scolded me in front of everyone.”
The bride was not allowed to call her mother. “They kept my mobile phone in their custody. I was under surveillance and could not inform anybody of what I was going through.” She did manage to speak to her mother once, though. It was during their honeymoon. “He took me to a resort in Kozhikode. He was having a shower and I took his phone and called my mom, asking her to come to the resort. He saw me on the phone when he came out. I said I was talking to staffers at the orphanage. He later realised I was lying when he saw my mother coming to meet me. I went out to talk to her, but he forcefully brought me back and hit me.”
The nightmare ended 17 days later on 30 June, when Jasem went back to the UAE, leaving her to stay with his mother at their home in Kerala.
In the first week of August, the newly-wed girl was told that she had been issued a talaq. “Immediately after his return, I’d overheard his mother talking to others about a divorce,” she says, “I was clueless, but she did not tell me anything. After a month, office bearers of the orphanage came to take me back. It was then that I realised what had happened. I have no clue why he did it. Now they raise baseless allegations of an extramarital relationship of mine and say this is the reason for the divorce.”
Not one to suffer in silence, she and her mother contacted a lawyer who forwarded their complaint to the Child Welfare Committee, which in turn instructed the police to file a case against the groom and his family.
Scholars of Arabian history say that some form or another of Arabikalyanam has been prevalent for centuries. “It is difficult to trace the history of this practice,” says Professor MN Karassery, who has written a series of articles on it, “It is even older than Islam, which originates in the 6th Century CE. Kerala has had trade relations with Arabs even before that. Visiting Arab merchants often had local relationships that gave children birth—the ancestors of many Muslim families in northern Kerala today.” Down the ages, poverty in that region led many families to arrange marriages of their daughters with Arab merchants. Poor families are tempted by wedding gifts and promises of money. The middlemen who find brides for Arabs get their share of cash too. In the typical pattern, conjugal relations span no longer than a few weeks or months, before the men divorce their brides and return home (often to their earlier wives).
Sometimes, a talaq is declared rightaway. Else, the notice arrives long distance from overseas. It is not clear the extent to which the brides’ families foresee the temporary nature of such weddings,but the brides themselves are usually left in shock; they see it as desertion.
The practice saw a decline in the 1980s as Gulf money began helping large numbers of Malayalee Muslims out of poverty. According to observers, many marriages with Arabs these days are genuine. “We cannot say that the girls are [sexually] abused and abandoned in all cases of Arab weddings,” says Karassery, “There are cases in which they’re taken to their husbands’ homes and have led peaceful married lives. But the general trend [has been] the Arab misuse of the power of arbitrary talaq, which in fact is not permitted by Islam.”
Strictly speaking, the Islamic code of divorce insists on three talaq utterances, each separated by a menstrual cycle, and on alimony paid as a lumpsum specified in the nikaah to an ex-wife if the couple cannot be reconciled—a must-try—over that span of time. Clerics who validate divorces rarely enforce that rule, thus easing the scandalous practice of overnight weddings with no strings attached.
Outcries over Arabikalyanam first got all-India attention in the 1980s. “Newspapers would serialise stories on the plight of girls wedded to Arab nationals who came to Kerala on tourist visas,” recollects C Gouridasan Nair, chief of bureau of The Hindu.
Among the most famous was the case of Rejeena, a 14-year-old married off to a 60-year-old Arab who left her after a month-long honeymoon. Pregnant, the bride gave birth to a girl. It was only after a couple of years, when Rejeena heard he was on a visit to Kozhikode, that she took the help of human rights activists and had him arrested. “I do remember that his son came from the UAE and settled the case by giving her family money,” says PP Sandhya, a TV journalist who has covered the practice. “I know another 16-year-old girl who was married, sexually exploited and abandoned in Kuttichira in Kozhikode,” says Sandhya, “She lost her mental stability and was under treatment for long.”
Children born of such marriages have difficult lives. They are ridiculed in school. Wives who give birth to children in Gulf countries before returning divorced also run into complications posed by their foreign citizenship. They are harassed by the police. “A woman in Kozhikode who was running a tailoring shop went to the UAE as a domestic help,” says Sandhya, “She was married by an Arab citizen there, and, after three children, was sent back to Kerala divorced. None of the kids had Indian citizenship and she had to suffer for it.”
Sandhya holds poverty responsible for the problem. There are cases, she says, of abandoned women turning to sex work in desperation to support themselves.
The 17-year-old Bcom student says that she had heard of Arabikalyanam, but took some time to recognise herself as a victim of it. Her family could not help. Her father had divorced her mother while she was a child. Like many Muslim girls in Malabar, she was sent to an orphanage because her mother couldn’t afford to educate her on her meagre earnings. Her sister, two years younger, was sent to another orphanage in the same district. Her mother remarried and had two more children before the stepfather had a heart attack and died a few years ago. Her mother, now 39 years old, sells soap door-to-door and struggles to get by.
“I had no plans to get my daughter married at a young age,” says the mother, “Both my girls are good in studies. Why should I deprive them of education?”
She weeps all through our hours-long conversation. “One day,” she says between tears, “I was called up by the secretary [of the orphanage] and told they had a good alliance for my daughter. They talked to me as if they had already decided everything. It was as if they were informing me rather than seeking my consent. I was helpless. I was instructed to reach the venue on the morning of the marriage.”
The orphanage officials deny the mother’s allegation. “We did nothing but facilitate the marriage,” says Ramsi Ismail, secretary of CIESCO, “We had not taken any initiative. The proposal was brought by a relative of the girl. It was her mother, in fact, who insisted we solemnise the marriage… We did everything for the welfare of the girl. How could we know the man would leave her?”
What makes this case unusual is the mother and daughter’s determination to set things right. “This should not happen to any other girl,” says the teenager, “Many people approached us for a compromise, but we demand justice.”
According to KK Samad, their lawyer, the family had no clue what to do when they first approached him: “[The girl] had only one thing in mind—to continue her studies.” He not only helped them file a case, he adds, he also assisted her college admission. Seven people have since been charged with various offences. Sulekha, Jasem’s mother, was arrested and spent a week in jail. “There are a total of 12 accused in this case, including office bearers of the orphanage,” says Ashraf T, the circle inspector in charge of the police investigation, “Cases have been made under the Juvenile Justice Act, Sexual Harassment Prevention Act of 2012 and also under IPC Sections 498 A and 376 (on rape). We will try to bring him to India based on the 2000 extradition treaty signed between India and the UAE.”
The case, however, has made some conservative Muslim groups uneasy. Just recently, a clutch of such outfits asked India’s Supreme Court to exclude Muslim women from the national law that sets a minimum marital age of 18. This demand, cloaked as a question of ‘freedom of religion’, was condemned by many within the community. Even the Muslim Students Federation, the student’s wing of the Muslim League, has opposed it.
“Conservatives are scared of women getting education and economic independence. This recent case might have made them insecure. We don’t find any other reason for this sudden resistance to a minimum age for marriage,” says VP Suhara, president of NISA, an organisation of Muslim women who work against gender discrimination.