India’s contract marriages: When Sheikhs marry, rape and divorce child brides, all in one week

Published: September 24, 2017
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A Newar girl shows her palms decorated with henna to the camera during an Ihi ceremony. PHOTO: REUTERS

Poverty is not a crime, but it surely is a curse for docile Muslim girls in the poverty-driven city of Hyderabad, India. Why, you ask? Because young girls from impoverished families are forced to marry ageing and rich men.

Since the 90s, Hyderabad has been a hunting ground for the rich philanderers from oil-rich countries to seek young and virgin brides. Over the years, numerous unfortunate stories of teenaged brides wedded to ageing Arabs have unfolded at regular intervals. Recently, 20 people were arrested in a major crackdown against a ‘Sheikh marriage’ racket, which hints towards a much greater issue.

Amidst poor living conditions and rising dowry demands from local suitors, families are compelled to marry off their teenage girls (as young as 14 and sometimes even 11) to Sheikhs from the Gulf or African countries. For an agreed amount, the poor girls are wedded off to these rich Sheikhs who are almost their father’s age.

Nevertheless, for countless poor families in the poverty-ridden city, this monetary proposal is irresistible. Besides, the fact that families are so large, with seven to 10 children, paying exorbitant sums of cash as dowry becomes difficult. Desperate families find it easier to receive a good amount through a contract marriage from an older man, rather than paying a prospective groom’s family from their own pocket.

And so, the girls settle for a nikkah against their wishes, as they are blindsided by their parents who tell them they are doing it for their family’s needs and requirements. Most often, the story unfolds with the common narrative that there is no money to feed the younger siblings, so if she puts her selfishness aside and gets married to the old man, she can rescue them and become the family’s saviour. The girl is ultimately left with no choice whatsoever.

As bizarre as it may sound, the wealthy Sheikh bails out the poverty-stricken family like a knight in shining armour, by making a deal with the needy parents for a few thousand rupees. Next, the child bride ends up selling both her body and soul to the old man, who is interested only in raping the virgin bride. Although earlier, these men used to take their child wives back to their native countries as third or fourth wives. But now days, they either become maids or are sold as sex slaves.

Unfortunately, contract marriages seem to be on a rise. The rich Sheikhs coming from Gulf countries marry young girls and end up signing divorce papers at the same time. The divorce papers are dated after a week or two post the marriage date. In between the nikkah and the divorce date, the virgin bride is raped multiple times in a local lodge or a posh hotel, depending upon the amount of money the Sheikh gives to the broker. When it is time for the rich Arab to move out of Hyderabad, the girl is sent back to her home.

Shamelessly, the whole shebang of the deal is arranged by marriage brokers with the local Qazi, so that the old grooms can easily leave their brides back and return to their countries after doing what they had come for. Like many others, you must be wondering why a contract marriage though? Since Islam forbids prostitution, contract marriages are a simple way to dodge the forbidden act. However, contract marriages are also against Islamic rules, but some of the Qazis are ready to bend Shariah rules for the sake of money.

While the old peadophile returns to his home country unharmed, the divorced girl’s life changes for the worse. With her virginity lost, the now useless and ‘unclean’ girl is no more accepted back in her home. This is the reason why most often these girls (with no education or skill) either fall prey to prostitution or are married multiple times.

However, now that the Sheikh marriage ring is busted and the police has arrested three Qazis, five marriage brokers and four lodge owners along with nationals from Qatar and Oman, there is hope that the nexus between the brokers, the lodge owners and the Qazis can be broken.

This in turn can help in taming this curse of Hyderabad. But then, till the time the parents do not stop seeing their girl child as a means to get away from poverty, nothing can change.

Deepti Verma

Deepti Verma

The author is co-founder of NationalViews.com - an online portal for articulating opinions, views that needs national as well as global attention. She tweets @universal_rover (twitter.com/universal_rover?lang=en)

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