Jameela Nishat who regularly gets threats has stopped hundreds of contract marriages and also create awareness among poor families so that they don't become victim of this crime.
Taslima Begum, a 21-year-old third year student of commerce, recently bought a scooter with a salary she gets from her job at a DMart in Hyderabad. At the age of 14, Taslima was married to a 60-year-old Sudanese man who offered Rs 40,000 to her family. Taslima was unable to see the misery of her poverty-stricken mother and with an alcoholic father not helping matters, had agreed to the contract marriage. On the night of her wedding, police raided the hotel, and Taslima was rescued.
Contract marriages or forced marriages mostly take place in the old city of Hyderabad. Men from the Middle East visit Hyderabad and marry Muslim girls who are much younger to them for a few weeks or months. In return, they give amounts ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh to families of the girls. Before returning to their countries, they divorce the girls and they are remarried to other older men from Middle Eastern countries.
Activist Jameela Nishat has been working to rehabilitate rescued girls and also to create awareness among poor Muslim families so that they do not fall victim to this trend. Her organisation Shaheen has stopped 156 such marriages in 2017, 86 in 2018 and 66 in 2019. The organisation has rehabilitated hundreds of survivors so far.
Nishat explains the modus operandi of such forced marriages to NewsClick, mentioning that poor Muslim families who struggle to make ends meet are targeted. “Middlemen or agents of brokers have networks across the old city of Hyderabad and Muslim-dominated districts like Karimnagar. They keep a watch on poor families with young girls and convince their parents for a contract marriage through neighbours, old aunts or relatives,” she says.
She says that agents from the network try and “hook old rich men from the Middle East visiting Hyderabad for such alliances. Meetings, much like conferences are arranged between many girls and old men. Men pick up girls out of the ones brought up there,” she adds. Nishat says that men offer between Rs 10,000 and Rs 1 lakh to families through brokers who pocket a considerable portion of the money. “Nikah or contract marriage is arranged within a week from that meeting so that word would not spread,” she says.
In Islam, a Nikahnama is made as per the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and signatures of the bride and groom, two witnesses from each side and that of a qazi are a necessity.
Nishat says that the Nikahnama arranged by these agents are “fake”, mentioning that “agents sign as witnesses on the papers and the qazi is also fake. Aside from that, they make girls sign Talaq papers while signing Nikah papers as well.” The activist says that the girls or their families are not aware of this and so when the “old men return to their countries they leave girls behind.”
She says that as per information she receives from agents, over 2000 such marriages take place every year in Telangana. However, the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) has not registered a single case of forced marriage in 2018.
Social workers are creating awareness among poor families in the old city of Hyderabad about the modus operandi of agents and such contract marriages. Aside from hostility, they have also faced threats from agents. “It is difficult to approach families initially as they don’t respond to our calls. Its a challenge to create a sense of trust among them,” Nishat says. She says that hundreds of families have been saved due to awareness campaigns by Shaheen.
Mahesh Bhagwat, an IPS officer from Telangana, says that “such cases are registered under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO), or Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (ITPA) or Section 376 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code.”
Muneera Begum was eleven when she was deceitfully married to a 60-year-old man from Oman by her parents. “After the wedding, the old man kept me in a hotel for two months during which he would abuse, beat and rape me. After two months, he dropped me back to agents who took me to my parents while that man left for Oman. He called me after two months and I told him I was pregnant. He advised me to abort the child but that was not possible as I was seven months pregnant,” says Muneera.
It did not stop there.
Muneera says that after three years her parents began “preparation for my marriage with an old man, again. But, I somehow ran away to my uncle. Later, activists from Shaheen contacted me when they came to know about my ordeal. I learnt tailoring and would work at a local shop. Now I am happily married to a man of my choice,” she adds.
Jameela says they are grateful that the POCSO Act has been passed. “Now most of the cases are lodge under POCSO,” she says.
Shamshuddin Tamboli, an activist who heads the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal in Pune, underlines this as a crime. He says that a “network of criminals including qazis are working to exploit young girls. It is nothing about Islam. In the name of religion, young girls are used as sex-slaves. It is important that the police should be alert and stop poor families from falling prey to agents. Contract or forced marriages are illegal in India,” he adds.
The writer is freelance journalist.The views are personal.