Child marriage protests

 

The case of Tasleem Begum, from Hyderabad, illustrates the ugly side of India's cyber utopia. Tasleem is a class 8 student. Girls of her age would be dreaming of life after school, of education, a career and yes a happy matrimonial life. Nothing wrong in that. Except for Tasleem, matrimony and domestic life didn’t turn out that way.

What would have been like any other day to school, in fact, turned out to be a day Tasleem’s nightmare for life began. Her mother Shahnaz Begum, under the pretext of “dropping” Tasleem to school, instead took her to an unknown house where she exchanged a few words with two men and two women in the living room. Then her mother took Tasleem to a small room for a quiet moment. There, 14 year-old Tasleem, was told by her mother that she was getting married. Her husband? A 61-year-old from Oman.

The day was April 15, 2014. It was a day Tasleem was married and divorced. She didn’t know about the divorce part until much later. What she discovered later was a shock. Her mother had been paid about $700 — for letting the 61-year-old Omani enjoy the 14-year-old girl’s body.

Tasleem’s voice cracks every time she talks about her “marriage”, the old man from Oman and how he repeatedly raped her during the two nights she was forced to spend with him.

Tasleem’s case is by no means uncommon in India, but some cities seem to be a particularly favourite hunting ground for rich nationals of countries in the Middle East who want to satiate their lust the quick way, without being encumbered with the responsibilities of a marriage. Hyderabad in particular, is a preferred location for men from oil-rich Arab countries seeking young, virgin brides — some as young as 11 or 12. The connection between the city’s poor Muslims and wealthy, older men from the Gulf countries was forged in the ’70s and the ’80s by expats from Hyderabad. The situation has worsened in the past couple of years, becoming a de facto child prostitution supermarket.

But a group of women has taken justice into its own hands: they pose as desperate child-sellers while wearing burkas with hidden cameras in unorthodox “sting operations.” In two years, they have done more than police have managed to do in two decades.

arab arrests

While modern Hyderabad — or Cyberabad — is thriving tech hub and base for global companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, the Old City, home to forts, bazaars and narrow streets that attract tourists, has a history going back more than 400 years. Though predominantly Hindu, Hyderabad is also inhabited by Muslims, who make up 40 per cent of the population. Poverty levels among the community are abysmal.

It is believed that the practice of Arab nationals arriving in Hyderabad seeking very young, virgin brides began when local Muslim men started taking oil and construction jobs in the Middle East and talked about how poor their families were in Hyderabad. In the ’80s, people started seeing Arab sheikhs, in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, flock here to buy young brides. These Arabs would come from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman.

A new class of "marriage brokers" then came into its own, who for a steep price could find a child bride for an aging man. For many poor Muslim families in the Old City, the financial proposition was irresistible. Such families are typically large, with six to 10 children. Once the girls are of marriageable age, which is any time after puberty, prospective grooms and their families seek exorbitant sums of cash as dowry, though the practice was outlawed in 1961.

Desperate families were willing to receive money from wealthy Arab men in exchange for a young girl in marriage. They found this much more preferable than paying dowry to a groom’s family.

Though initially many Arab men took the girls back to their home countries as second, third or fourth wives and in some instances also treated them well, increasingly young brides started becoming sex slaves or maids.

When the story a 10-year-old named Ameena was exposed in 1991, blowing the lid off this dirty business, Arab men who continued to come to Hyderabad to seek young brides became more secretive. Neighbours would talk of girls disappearing overnight ... or teachers would realize that a girl was gone when she didn’t show up at school for a few days. It would turn out that they were “married off.”

There was a glimmer of hope of “marriages” of such minors ending when in the mid-2000s, Gulf countries started banning their citizens from bringing in foreign brides without prior permission. But that turned out to be a false hope. Pimps calling themselves “marriage brokers” only changed their modus operandi. Now, young girls are lured into marriage with ageing and rich Arabs, but the pimps are take care to “marry” off young girls and sign divorce papers at the same time. The divorce papers are dated for a week or two after the marriage. They take the girls to posh hotels and when it is time for the men to leave, the girls are sent home. Since Islam forbids prostitution, these short-term “marriages” circumvent that.

The families who sell off their girls continue to harbor the hope that the rich foreigner from Arabia may actually like their daughter and either set her up in a home in Hyderabad or take her with him. It’s a hope against hope, as the girl’s life is ruined after that.

Stigmatized for life after going through such a “marriage”, many victims are forced into prostitution. In most cases, the girls are supposed to stay with the man for a fixed period, usually between a week and a month, during which they are repeatedly raped. The rich Arabian will fly away, but the girls returning home as a divorcee often find themselves shunned by their own parents too. They’re no longer virgins and therefore, of little value.

With little education and no skills, many of them fall into the prostitution trap for sheer survival, ending up in brothels in India’s other metros.