Married and cast away shortly after honeymoon by their Arab husbands, hundreds of poor Muslim women in Kerala's northern coastal districts are cursing their fate.
Thirty-nine-year-old Kunhamina has no identity of her own. "Take a taxi to Kuttikattoor and ask for the 'Arabian bride' Kunhamina. She is famous there because of her ludicrous marriage. And no need of a postal address or phone number," advises a senior special branch police officer attached to the City Police Commissioner Office in Kozhikode.
In Kuttikattoor, about 20 km from Kozhikode city, Faizal Abdulla Quid Ahmed and Ahmed Abdulla Quid Ahmed refuse to be photographed. "Policemen regularly come knocking on our door, threatening us with deportation. My mother has been running from pillar to post for the last 14 years, trying to get citizenship for my younger brother and me. No photographs please as they mean nothing but further humiliation," says 21-year-old Faizal, an engineering graduate.
Kunhamina holds a slightly different view. "I will continue to strive for Indian citizenship for both of my children. They have no place to dwell other than India. You take any number of my photographs if they can ensure citizenship for my children," she says.
Kunhamina's husband Abdulla Quid Ahmed, a Yemeni national, is an exception among the hundreds of aged Arab men who come to Kerala every year and marry poor Muslim women of the region. He spends about six months each year in Kuttikattoor with his Indian wife and children, and supports them financially. Kunhamina is very worried that her two teenaged sons are neither citizens of India nor Yemen.
The problem began when Ahmed, who was 60 when he married for the third time, took his 16-year-old Indian bride to Sharajah where he worked in a private firm. Kunhamina returned to India with her children years later. Now, however, the three feel extremely insecure as they have no ration card, no passport and no official permission to undertake any job. They have to renew their temporary permission to stay here annually for a fee of Rs 1,400.
Two of Subaida's three daughters face the same problem. Subaida, who lives in Vattakundu near Pallikandy, however has no husband to turn to for moral and monetary support. In 1987, when she was twenty-four, she was married off to Haji Farooqui, a 60-year-old Iranian and went to live with him in Dubai. Subaida returned to India with her three children nine years ago. There has been no word from her husband for the last five years, and she is not waiting anymore.
Her children Fathima and Azna, who do not have Indian citizenship, are facing deportation. After many years of representation to various governmental agencies, she has lost all hope. "As a last resort, I met Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan last week and pleaded for his intervention. He promised maximum efforts on the part of state government to persuade an otherwise unwilling Union Government," she said. "Since a large number of children of Arab marriages were born in Middle East and came here with their Indian mothers, they do not have the citizenship in either country and face deportation, when they become adults," points out VP Suhra, president of nisa, a voluntary agency that works with Muslim women in Kozhikode.
In fact, the issue of citizenship is just the tip of the iceberg. Married and cast away shortly after honeymoon by their Arab husbands, hundreds of poor Muslim women in the northern coastal districts of Kerala are cursing their fate. "Arab marriages are taking place clandestinely in north Kerala even now, though there is widespread propaganda that they are not taking place in this literate and progressive state. Barely an year ago the Kozhikode police arrested two Arabs on charges of marrying teenage girls and sexually abusing them," says a top police official who wishes to remain anonymous.
From Kasargod to Ponnani in Malappuram district, poor girls along the coast have always been married to Arabs in return of meher worth a few hundred rupees. Such marriages are rampant in Kozhikode, especially in Kuttichira, Mughadar, Pallikandi, Kampuram and Kappakkal ' places where slums dot beaches, the men-folk are usually fishermen or timber workers, and women work as housemaids in city homes.
K. Shuhaib, a social activist in Kuttichira, introduces us to Ayesha, who at 34 has already been married four times. None but one lasted beyond 60 days. She fails to recollect her second husband's name. She has two children, fathered by two of her former husbands.
Fathima alias Arakkal Pathu of Chappayil has a similar tale of woe. Forty-five-year-old Mohammed from Qatar married her when she was only 12, and abandoned her and their son three years later. She married a Saudi Arabian national later and he too left her without even waiting for the birth of her second son.
"I have never seen my father. I have no clue about his whereabouts. Even the name and address he gave to my mother's family were fake," says Pathus's second son Abubacker, a headload worker. Pathu is fortunate in that she has only two children to take care of. Other women in a similar situation often have to raise many children fathered by different men. As per rough estimates, there are more than 900 such forgotten children whose fathers came from across the sea, in Kuttichira alone.
Sixty-seven-year-old TT Bhathimayyi of Thangal's Road recalls that her father got Rs 200 as meher when she was married off to the Bahraini national Badre Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed 52 years ago. No communication was possible, as her husband only knew Arabic and she Malayalam. They lived as man and wife for three months. Her son Mohammed Mustafa now works in Bahrain after he obtained his citizenship there with the help of his step-brothers.
About 15 years ago, Subaida of Mughadar came to know of the death of her Iranian husband Hussain Mohammed in a shipwreck near the African coast. She was six months pregnant when Hussain had abandoned her. Now, she lives with her two daughters and a son. "Now, I am struggling hard to forget the bitter experiences of the past," she says.
"My father, Yusuf Mubaraq, has done nothing for us. But his three sons in Oman helped us a lot financially after his death. However the extreme humiliation and neglect by the society had already crippled my ambition to excel in life," says Ramla, daughter of Amina of Kozhikode South Beach. A school dropout, Ramla is now working as a housemaid to look after her 13-year-old daughter. Like her overseas father, Ramla's Indian husband divorced her without any reason some years ago.
There are scores and scores of such 'Arabian brides' in the densely populated, poverty ridden coastal area; the story of Aminas, Suharas, Subaidas and Bhathimayis is repeated over and over again.
Now things are done secretly. The secrecy is the result of a number of arrests since 1985. The people living in the coastal belt know marriages take place, but will not tell you where, when, how or who is getting married. The logic is simple: "It is poverty that makes these girls get into such marriages. Sometimes a kindly Arab might look after the girl for a lifetime. Why prevent that?"
The social reason behind these 'sales' is directly linked to the dowry system. The girl's family has to shell out a huge dowry in cash and gold in Muslim marriages. Girls who get married to aged Arabs come from poor families. And the meher Arabs give, which could be as little as Rs 3,000, is a boon to the family. The sanction by the clergy is another cause why the practice continues. The male-dominated clergy is least bothered about the poor women and their unfortunate children. All this, coupled with general lack of education and awareness, has made intervention by social organisations difficult. "If anything worthwhile is to be done, poverty should be wiped out. There can be no cosmetic changes," says Suhra.
Fearing the clergy's wrath, no political party in Kerala is taking up the issue. When the National Women's Commission organised separate sittings on Arab marriages in Kozhikode and Malappuram last year, the State Women's Commission ' comprising nominees of the previous Oommen Chandy government ' decided not to cooperate with it. The body has come under sharp criticism by women's groups. Suhra is demanding a multi-pronged approach by the government and the civil society to address the problem.