Many beauty parlours in Hyderabad old city are merely a front to arrange temporary marriages of pretty young Muslim women from poor backgrounds with aged sheikhs from Gulf countries. Occasionally, more than one girl is simultaneously married off by a pliant moulvi to the same sheikh.
Muslim women are always in the news as the subject of discussion; they are never treated as active participants in any of the minority issues or the issue of communal conflicts. The fact of the matter is Muslim women are very active at the ground level who articulate the issues at different level.
In the old city of Hyderabad where Shaheen works we find a range of issues within the family and outside. Like many other old cities, Hyderabad old city is thickly populated with Muslims. Despite the dominance of the Muslim population, the communal history of Hyderabad had enough events to hamper the social development of the community at multiple levels.
The post-independence history of Hyderabad is marred by riots and massacres between groups of Hindus and Muslims. The ‘reclamation’ of Hyderabad under ‘Operation Polo’ was followed by the political retreat of the Muslim community and development of an innate suspicion and insecurity within the community. The majority group was equally suspicious of the Muslim population and the mutual mistrust worked out into a massacred history.
Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular are poorly represented in the enforcement agencies. This combined with a lack of understanding and sensitivity to the plight of the women, makes the situation of Muslim women seeking police support/protection precarious. Women are the victims or easy targets and their position of social inferiority is an issue that needs to be examined.
Muslim women are doubly prone to exploitation and abuse; both for belonging to a minority group and also for being women. As women they are exploitable by men across the board. As Muslim women, they’re targeted with a number of stereotypes commonly associated with both “Muslimness” as well as women.
Indian Muslim women are oppressed as they face violence within the family structure, dominant religion, and internal patriarchy. While discrimination against women is widespread in India and there is a great degree of commonality in the challenges faced by women across socio-religious categories, Muslim women appear to have their problems sanctified by a narrow interpretation of their religion.
The patriarchal structure of Muslim society is very much acceptable even to the women who don’t live within family structure. “I need someone to take care of me and my children,” says Naseem who is now living with her fifth husband and who is ready to sell her daughter to an aged Arab.
The patriarchal setup of the family vests absolute power and influence to the men. “Women are potentially equal with men, but that equality is not achieved”, said Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan feminist writer who is no more. Women still remain subservient and servile – their lives controlled by men. Family – the closest unit of association and the primary unit of social capital – is often the most oppressive place for the Muslim women in India.
Women are controlled at every step. If they need to go to school or hospital, they need permission from the male members or they are escorted. The mobile that a young girl carries is always on auto-recording mode so that the family can later monitor and check her movements as well as her friends’ circle.
Issues pertaining to security are both perceptual and contextual. With little control over their lives Muslim women largely remain confined to their homes and immediate neighborhood for real or perceived reasons of safety, and feel insecure about their lives, assets and well being.
They strongly believe that “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard.” (Quran, 4:34, translation A. Yusuf Ali).
Thus the patriarchal structure of Muslim society is very much acceptable even to the women who don’t live within family structure. “I need someone to take care of me and my children,” says Naseem who is now living with her fifth husband and who is ready to sell her daughter to an aged Arab.
The extreme poverty combined with patriarchy has led Muslim girls into the trap of temporary or contract marriages where the nikahnama (marriage deed) and the talaqnama (divorce deed) are signed simultaneously and the girls are married to any foreign national for anywhere between Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh. A girl from a poor family easily becomes a prey in the hands of the middlemen who act as brokers and give a lot of hope to the family that by marrying the girl to a rich foreigner they can become rich over night.
Once the parents are taken into confidence, they present her in front of the Arab Sheikh and she is priced according to her looks and sexual appeal of her body. Once the marriage is settled the middlemen take their 80 per cent share in the mehr paid to the girl; only 20 per cent is paid to the girl’s family.
On one of their routine home visits in the old city area staff members from Shaheen found an important lead that exposes a ring of persons involved in the flesh trade in Hyderabad. Beauty parlours in the old city, the staff discovered, are more than just beauty parlours. The public face of the beauty parlour announces beautician courses for young women interested in beginning their careers in the beauty business.
Covertly, some of these beauty parlours run a full-fledged business of contract marriage where women are married off to Arab sheikhs in exchange for a handsome amount which the girl’s family earns. A middle aged woman, who runs both sides of the business, is popular among the women in that part of Hyderabad as someone who launches their ‘careers’. It is said that there are many other such “beauty parlours” in the city.
Shaheen staff members undertook a sting operation to find out how beauty parlours functioned. Two of them approached the above-mentioned woman. They asked know how to apply for the beautician course, saying that they were making these enquiries for a friend who was interested.
On hearing that their “friend” was young and pretty, the middle aged woman enquired about the economic status of the family, stating that she might have an alternate job to their ‘friend’ that would fetch her more money. She said their “friend” could make a decent amount by marrying a man who lived abroad.
In the course of the conversation, Shaheen staff learned that her husband whets the girls and picks those who are beautiful and just about 18-years-old. These girls are then sent to Mumbai to one of the many Sheikhs who reside in some 5-star hotel. In Mumbai they are married to the Sheikh with whom they stay for some five days after which the Sheikh takes the girl to his home country: Qatar, Abu Dhabi or Jeddah.
“Maan, aapko satravan damad Mubarak!” (Congratulations Mother, you are now a mother-in-law for the 17th time!). That was Rehana, 26, writing to her mother from Doha, Qatar in 2002. Rehana is the eldest in the family with nine other sisters and four brothers. Rehana was married for the first time at the age of 12 to an Arab Sheikh and since then her serial marriages were the main source of income for the family. Her mother had forbidden her from returning to India before all her sisters were married off and her brothers “settled” in life.
Recently, in 2015, a 22-year-old girl committed suicide after her seventeenth marriage to an old Arab.
Many families in Barkas, Salala, Shaheen Nagar and other localities of the Old City Hyderabad survive on such flesh trade. Misusing the sanctioned provision which allows a Muslim man to have four wives at a time, many old Arabs are not just marrying minors in Hyderabad, but marrying more than one minor in a single sitting.
The Arabs prefer teenage, virgin brides. Women's bodies are used for easy economic prosperity. Reshma, a 16-year-old was harassed every day by her mother: “Look at others in the neighborhood, how fast they are becoming well off. We are not able to have two meals a day.” Reshma is one of many such adolescent girls whose parents aspire to live a better life. These families want their daughters to look healthy and beautiful with nice clothes.
As Said Shah put it in one of his articles: “There is a constant promise of glitz from the media: you are worth living only if you have a mobile phone, nice clothes, a new car — the list is endless.” This triggers an increase in the crime rate as many take to violence to fulfill their desires.
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude,” states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the women in the Old City are so vulnerable that they can go to any extent. Women bear a disproportionate burden in the families, and are most commonly trafficked for the sex trade. The girls are always treated as subordinates and given little freedom to make choices.
The Muslim woman’s identity has become a major crisis in today’s globalised world. It needs to be recognized in the first place. The lack of this recognition is the root of the problem. This is what makes her an invisible entity that is vulnerable to violence of every imaginable sort.
The government should play an active role in giving the Muslim woman an identity through recognition. This can happen only when Muslims as a minority are recognised and given visibility in such a diverse country like India. Owing to the active discrimination that Muslims suffer as a group they need the support of the state more than others.