|HER WORLD||Sunday, April 27, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
The Arabian knightmare
MARRIED, honeymooned and cast away, hundreds of poor Muslim women in Kerala’s Malabar coast are cursing their destiny, after having been brides, all too briefly, of Arab nationals, says
M. P. Basheer
Married, honeymooned and cast away, hundreds of poor Muslim women in Kerala’s Malabar coast are cursing their destiny, after having been brides, all too briefly, of Arab nationals, says M. P. Basheer
HER face proclaims her predicament. At the age of 35, Ayesha is a veteran of four marriages. None of them, except one, lasted beyond 90 days. She even fails to recollect the name of her second husband, but has to care for two children fathered by two. Neither of the children has any memory of their father.
Ayesha, who ekes out a living working as a housemaid in an upper middle class family in Kuttichira, Kozhikode, Kerala, is not alone. She represents nearly 600 poor Muslim women who were married off to citizens of Arabian countries, who came to the Malabar coast on merchant ships or pleasure trips. These women mostly inhabit the coastal settlements of Mughadar, Kampuram, and Kappakkal in Kozhikode and parts of Ponnani and Thirur in Malappuram. Where slums dot beaches, the men folk are usually fishermen or timber workers and women work as housemaids in city homes.
Life is a daily struggle; water and electricity are scarce. Sewers are exposed; children defecate in the open. But more insidious than the rigours of poverty is the status of women. Here religion is often misused and deployed as a "legitimate" means of female exploitation. Arabi Kalyanam, as the marriages between local girls and Arab nationals are locally known, is all the more tragic as it is aided by a combination of the loose laws and poverty.
Ayesha was first married off when she was 14. The man was a sawmill worker who was 25 years senior to her. He had already married twice and had a daughter of Ayesha’s age. In the four years that the marriage lasted, her husband was very jealous and would not allow his young wife to talk to another man. One day, one of her classmates from the madarsa (religious schools), greeted her in the streets of Kozhikode. He simply divorced her the same day. And within 15 days he married another woman, probably a younger one. But, by the time Ayesha had given birth to a girl child. She and her child had lead a miserable life along with their poor family in a squalid quarter of the town, for almost four years.
Here begins the Arabian saga. She remembers that she was 21, and her child five, when she was again married, this time to a Qatar national (whose name she has forgotten), who came on trade ship at Beypore port, 12 km south of Kozhikode. " One day my maternal uncle came to our house with a 55-plus Arab man. Uncle told us the man had agreed to marry me and he would give me money to get my child admitted to school." She remembers it was a rainy day, perhaps in early June when schools reopen in Kerala. " It was high time for my child to be sent to school. So, I agreed"
The same day, Syed Shihabudheen Imbichi Koya Thangal, the Valiya Khasi, the chief priest of Kozhikode, solemnised the nikaah at his chamber, half a mile away from her house, which was too small to accommodate a "foreign bridegroom". Her husband took her to a local hotel where he staying. They lived there for 40 days. On the day his ship embarked, he left her with a promise to visit her every six months. " I waited for him for two years. All in vain. The only benefit from that marriage was that my child got some good clothes and her school books," says Ayesha with no emotion.
The marriage came to an end when her uncle brought another Arab, a relatively young and wealthy man from Saudi Arabia, who was on a pleasure trip to Malabar. She says she enjoyed the two months with him. They toured many places in North Kerala and dined at good restaurants. She also got good clothes and a purse of Rs 20,000. When he parted with her, he too, promised to come back and take her to Saudi Arabia. She still believes he was sincere. But after a few months, her father got a letter from the Saudi Arabian Family Welfare Department nullifying the marriage on the basis of a complaint by his Arabian first wife.
By that time Ayesha was four months into her pregnancy. She named her son Rafeeque Abdulla after his father Ahmed Abdulla. "As a little child my son used to ask about his father." says she. The 12 year-old Rafeeque is studying in class V11, in the Kuttichira High school.
She was married for the fourth time in 1991 when she was 25. Nothing was unusual. A marriage broker brought the proposal from a UAE national who was on the crew of a ship that was anchored at Beypore for 15 days. However, he stayed with her for three months to leave when the ship came on the next sail. He was also kind enough to pronounce the Talaq before he left and give her Rs 5000, which she used to buy a golden chain for her girl "who has already attained marriageable age". Ayesha is, however determined to marry off her child to any Arab or a Gulf returnee. Two years back, she almost gheraoed the local priest who came with a proposal from a Gulf returnee to take young Hafsa as his second wife.
A glimpse at Ayesha’s life reveals the chaotic nature of the marital life of a number of the working class woman in the poverty-ridden coastal areas of Kozhikode and Malappuaram district. Those who marry four or five times may be exceptions. The areas are home to nearly 600 Muslim women who were married off at a young age, mostly against their will, to citizens of Arabian countries.
Ayesha is fortunate that she has only two children to take care for. Many other women bear the responsibility of raising many children fathered by many men. Fathima at Ambalakkandi in Kozhikode is a typical case as she has five children – two by a local merchant and the remaining three by a Saudi national who visited her till his death. Two marriages and five deliveries later, Fathima is earning a living as a housemaid. According to rough estimates, there are more than 900 forgotten children, whose fathers came from across the sea.
The community leadership of Malabar Muslims, controlled as it is by the affluent half or the male-dominated clergy is least bothered about the poor women and their unfortunate children. Syed Muhasin Shihabudheen Thangal, the new incumbent as the Valiya Khasi, says it is the duty of the girls’ parents to take responsibility. " They have to probe the eligibility of the bridegrooms. Our duty is just solemnising the nikaah" says he. More than 200 such nikaahs have taken place in last 40 years at the Valiya Khasi’s chamber, the most reputed cleric home in Kozhikode.
Renowned writer, N.P. Muhammad, attributes the one-time rampant system of Arabi kalyanams to acute poverty and callous leadership of the community. "Wealthy Arabs often married beautiful young women from aristocratic families and took the brides back home. Those who married the women from lower strata of the community are mostly labourers of the Arabian ships that anchor at Beypore port. The logical end such marriages comes when the ships leave the port," says Muhammad.
Many blame the sad fate of these women on the young age at which the girls are forced to marry. Had they not been married at the age 14 or 15, and had they been allowed to accrue an education, they would have been able to decide what is good for them. Sadly, the education scenario in the Muslim heartland of Malappuram and neighboring districts is still pathetic. Ayesha’s daughter Hafsa stopped schooling after class V11 back.
With decline of the trade
at the Beypore port and consistent protest from the progressive section
among Muslims, the system of Arabi Kalyanams has almost come to
an end. Instead of Arabs, local Gulf returnees are coming to these
shores for second marriage. A new form of Arabic marriages for a
pre-fixed period is now flourishing in Kozhikode slums, the bridegrooms
being Gulf returnees. Hundreds of Muslim girls who live without their
fathers are waiting for marriages. Is the fate of their mothers on the
cards for them, too? Quest
WHEN Vyjayanthimala did that sexy Main ka karoon Ram mujhe buddha mil gaya number in Raj Kapoor's Sangam, she broke the mould of the traditional Indian woman that Bollywood actresses of those times epitomised. But nobody really protested. Vyjayanthimala, of course, was never considered the trend-setter for the changing projection of Indian women on the silver screen. It was left to Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi to don that mantle.
Things never were the same after these two bold young women hit the silver screen. What followed was a seemingly endless queue of `daring and baring' young actresses who didn't think exposing their mid ribs or showing their thighs was a big deal. And apparently, nor did many others.
Somewhere down the line, television took up from where cinema left. It didn't improve matters so far as projection of women on the screen was concerned. If anything, it has made things worse, giving obscenity a new definition by extending it beyond the simple exposure of the body to obscenity of the mind and the heart. Top of the list are the Saas-bhi-kabhi bahu-thi kind of soap operas that centred around a very limited portrayal of Indian women—as vamps, doormats and schemers. Even when women are shown as top executives heading organisations, they are projected as over-wealthy, frivolous characters who slip from one extra-marital affair into another with the ease with which they are used to changing their clothes every morning.
Advertisements like the `Fair and Lovely' one, which is already the subject of a legal wrangle, have effectively rounded off the process of demeaning women on the screen. All, of course, in the name of creativity.
What is surprising is that such blatantly obnoxious depiction of women on screen has provoked little protest, even among the thinking, education women. That, in fact, has been the tragedy of the Indian women. So used are the large majority of them to living in subjugation that anything else seems unthinkable. The reason why, perhaps, when some of the cream of Bollywood gathered the other day in New Delhi for FICCI's much-hyped brainstorming, soul-searching session on ‘The Impact Of Cinema and Portrayal Of Women In Films' at a seminar on `Women, cinema and society', they emerged out of the meeting strongly united on the need to let things take their own course.
These Bollywood personalities, at least the members of the fair sex, should have been crying foul. Instead, they all smiled nicely, exchanged pleasantries and left it all to `individual choice'. Come to think of it, the big controversy raked by Manisha Koirala's Chhoti Si Love Story some months ago had done more to bring the issue to the centrestage than this star-studded session.
The debate ended inconclusively, with hardly a whimper of protest even from the likes of Jaya Bachchan, Vyjayanthi-mala, Deepti Naval and Shabana Azmi, and even serious film-makers like Mrinal Sen and Shashi Kapoor, all of whom agreed to leave censorship of all kind to "individual choice", choosing not to put their foot down on the shockingly obscene portrayal of women in films and on television.
Quite expectedly, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Ravi Shankar Prasad was happy to endorse the view of the stars. "Creativity, beauty and the depiction of women and everything else associated with films is strictly the job of its creator; the Government is not in the banning business. People have to help us decide what to show and what to censor,'' as he put it, quite happy not to have to tread into controversial ground.
The fact, however, is that with or without government intervention, it's a subject of much controversy and frequent debate. On the one side are film, serial and ad makers, and the stars themselves, who feel that the choice of what to see or what not to see rests entirely with the people.
As Mrinal Sen and Mahesh Bhatt put it at the FICCI meet : "We are in the business of selling illusions, it is up to the people to decide what they want to see and how. No government or censor board can do that job.'' Mrinal Sen, in fact, blames the excessive negative portrayal of women on the male chauvinistic society that we live in. A view that most of his colleagues in the film industry share. `We are only showing what exists' is their constant refrain to any criticism on this count.
This argument does not, however, go down well with women activists and social groups fighting for the cause of women. As Kirti Singh, Legal Counsel for All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), says : "The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act would be rendered meaningless if there is no censorship imposed by the government."
Reacting to the argument taken by most film-makers, she says their response is probably prompted by the need to keep a check on unwarranted censorship. She is, however, adamant on the need for strong enactment to check the obscene portrayal of women on the screen.
Singh, whose AIDWA was behind the legal case of which the Fair and Lovely ad is now the subject of, is strongly of the opinion that obscenity has no place in the on-screen projection of women. And obscenity, she is quick to emphasise, extends much beyond physical exposure and encompasses any portrayal of women in the subservient or negative role. What she objects to is not the negative portrayal of women but such projections as a norm rather than the exception.
Though not widespread, there is some support for this point of view among members of the film industry. Filmmaker Tanuja Chandra feels the saas-bahu genres of TV serials are just tactics to get TRPs and sponsors. ''I do feel bad that television is being misused because it provides an excellent opportunity to experiment but that has unfortunately not happened,'' she says.
AIDWA, and most other women's organisations, including the National Commission for Women (NCW), stress the need for `watchdogs' to check obscene representation of women in cinema and TV.
Based on recommendations received from various state commissions for women, including those of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala etc, the NCW is currently in the process of formulating a set of recommendations to pressurise the government into coming out with a more stringent enactment on the subject.
A key recommendation of the NCW is that the Act should not remain limited to the print media but should also be extended to visual media such as films, computer media including internet.
The NCW also wants a widening of the scope of the definition of 'advertisement' to include poster and any visible representation made by means of any laser light, fibre optic electronic or other media. Enhancing punishment for violation is another important recommendation of the Commission.
How the government will respond to these recommendations, as and when they come, remains a moot question. And a lot will depend on the kind of pressure the NCW and other women's groups are able to put on the government in the days and weeks to come.