Malappuram's Hapless Women

K A Shaji
Malappuram and Kozhikode

Shakheela had no qualm when her father decided to discontinue her studies at ninth standard and to marry her off to a man in his late thirties. As far as this 13-year-old poor girl from Ramankuth near Nilambur in Kerala’s Muslim dominated Malappuram district was concerned, marriage was nothing but an opportunity to wear new dresses and gold ornaments. She was least aware of the complexities involved in a child marriage and never thought it was illegal. At that time, Shakheela had no clue that she would become a mother by the age of 15 and would be abandoned one day along with the kid by the husband to marry another young girl.
The battle for survival is tough for Shakheela, at present 21-years-old, and her six –year-old son Muhammad Shahan. Shakheela’s father died last year and the aged mother is affected with a number of chronic diseases. Shakheela also has to look after two of her younger brothers, who are just a little older than Shahan. The local panchayat has offered her a small loan to buy a cow and now she depends solely on the few litres of milk from the cow to meet both ends.
``Most of the girls in the ninth standard along with me at that time are yet to get married. It was sheer poverty and the inability to provide dowry that prompted my poor father to marry me off to Musthafa, who claimed to have belonged to Wayanad in North Kerala. None of his relatives came here before or after the marriage and he never took me and the kid to his native place,’’ recalls Shakeela. Her family had given eight sovereigns of gold and a few thousands of rupees during marriage but Musthafa spent all that lavishly for his own needs.
`` He left me forever soon after the second birthday of Shahan. There was no hint that he was abandoning me and the kid forever and he even took away the small gold chain of Shahan, which was the last valuable at home. It was a present from my poor ailing mother,’’ she said. It was in November 2008; Shakheela by chance found a news item in a vernacular daily about a major road accident in Wayanad and the name of Musthafa was given as one among the deceased. There was no communication from his family about his death. Only after his passing away, she came to know that Musthafa had married twice before meeting her and he had five children apart from Shahan. ``He married again after leaving me. The accident death may be an attempt by the god to prevent him from marrying more girls and ruining their lives. That marriage crippled my life forever and I wish to extend whatever my cooperation to the society in ending such a system that promotes child marriage. Can you imagine that Musthafa had came to see me and Shahan at the maternity ward of the local government hospital only 29 days after the delivery of the boy?,’’ she asks.
Nilambur Village Panchayat President and known Malayalam film maker Aryadan Shoukath talks about another girl of similar fate. Shahina was his classmate till eighth standard at Government Manavedan High School in Nilambur. ``It was a terrible shock for me and my sister when the news of Shahina’s marriage came. A close friend of my sister, Shahina was with us till the other day snatching dragon flies and reciting a poem of Raveendranath Tagore from the school text book. She was very brilliant in academics. It was in the year in which my sister appeared for the school final exam, Shahina became a mother and it was followed by a triple talaq, which made her life further miserable. She was later married off to a 60-year-old man, who already had three wives,’’ says Shoukath.
28-year-old Surekha Kallingal of Chandakunnu has a different experience to tell. She was married off to Irfan, a native of Rajendra Nagar in Mysore district of Karnataka, at the age of 14. Surekha had no command over any language other than Malayalam. Even basic communication was not possible at Irfan’s house, where Kannada and Urdu were the spoken languages. Her family had provided seven sovereigns of gold and Rs 70,000 as dowry but Surekha had to return to her native place later as Irfan wanted to marry another girl. Now Surekha works in a laterite brisk manufacturing unit to look after her two children. Neither money nor the gold was returned by the family of husband. ``I am even denied of any governmental help. The authorities require either a divorce certificate or proof of death of my husband. As there was no customary talaq, there is no chance of divorce certificate,’’ she says.
A P Hafzath of Makkaraparambu is also a victim of `Mysore Marriage,’ in which men from the Mysore region of Karnataka coming to the Muslim pockets of Kerala in search of minor girls to marry. While comparing with the local bride grooms, those from Mysore demand lesser dowry. Hafzath was fourteen when the marriage was held and the man from Mysore preferred to stay at her home in Kerala than taking her to Karnataka. After three years and two children, he simply vanished. Inquiries found that the addresses he given were bogus.
``My father Aryadan Mohammed may be the first politician from within the community to raise voice against the orthodoxy which gives nod to such illegal marriages. Right from the childhood, I was witness to the harrowing real life tales told by these women and their illiterate parents to my father, who represents Nilambur Assembly constituency for more than a quarter century. The Shahina episode had touched my conscience deeply and it was after that I had scripted the award winning film Padom Onnu Oru Vilapom (Lesson One: A Wail),’’ said Shoukath. Directed by ace film maker T V Chandran, the film was the first courageous attempt to focus on child marriages in Muslim pockets of Malappuram and actress Meera Jasmine won national award by giving expression to the pangs of Shahina.
``It is alarming that girls here are becoming mother by the age of 15 and grandmother by 30. How a civilized society can tolerate this? At Women’s Commission, we are getting too many complaints from the victims of such marriages on an every day basis. But orthodoxy is whipping up communal passion whenever the commission acts on such complaints,’’ says P K Sainaba, member of Kerala Women’s Commission.
``There is no demand for women above the age of 18 in the Muslim marriage markets of North Kerala. Marriage must be held before the age of 16, the clergy insists. It would be difficult to get a life partner for Muslim women above the age of twenty and having degree or post graduation,’’ points out Shoukath. According to him, the dowry system is strong among Muslims living in the northern region of Kerala, called Malappuram-Kasargod belt, and a decent marriage requires at least 3 lakh rupees. ``The inability to provide at least 20 sovereigns of gold and Rs two lakh is forcing poor parents to marry off their minor daughters to people double of their age. Most of such men are marrying for the third or fourth time and so they demand lesser dowry,’’ he says.
``The parents are only concerned about the marriage. They are least concerned about the life thereafter. The presence of women’s organizations is very minimal in these regions and Muslim women are least attracted to their activities,’’ says Sainaba.
At the family court in Manjery, there are over 300 pending cases filed by `minor’ wives against their estranged husbands. ``Even the law fails to put and to this system. The court can direct the husband to give a maximum of Rs 500 as maintenance a month. Six months simple imprisonment is the punishment for failing in it. Most of the men prefer to go to jail for six months instead of giving Rs 500 a month to the previous wife. This is the tendency here,’’ said V P Suhara, a social activist.
A rapid household survey conducted by Union Health Ministry a few years ago, about 36 percent of girls in Malappuram district (comprised of five municipalities and 100 village panchayats) are being married off before the age of 18. At the state level, only 9.1 per cent of Malayalee girls are getting married before 18. As per a data released by Kerala Education department last year, as many as 2152 Muslim girls in Malappuram, who got promotion from ninth standard to tenth standard, had decided not to continue their studies and even not to appear for the SSLC examination. The district wise data also shows that around 1502 girls stopped their education at eighth standard and 1834 girls at seventh standard. There is also a severe drop in the number of girls joining in the first standard. While comparing with the previous year, the reduction in fresh enrolments was about 1198. The drop out rate of Muslim girls from second to fourth standards is also alarming. There was a drop out of 964 girls in the second standard and 1817 girls in third standard. In fourth standard, it was 982; interestingly there is no drop-out in the case of Muslim boys studying in different schools.
``A large number of the parents feel that it would be difficult to find a husband to their daughter if she completes 15 years of age. Even this year, at least a dozen parents have asked me to fail their daughters ignoring their academic brilliance at class nine,’’ said headmaster of a school in Edavanna.
``Without the consent letter of first wife, no second marriage is permitted in Pakistan, an Islamic country. But here the orthodoxy is ignoring the tears of poor girls, who have been trapped in the marriage business. The matter is not bothering them. Aged men from Arab countries and areas like Mysore are still looking for their prey here,’’ says Shoukath.
``The age of groom is never taken into consideration though a 15-year-old girl is considered out of marriage market,’’ says Suhara. According to her, most of the mothers of these unfortunate girls and their son-in-laws are of the same age.
Citizenship is the main problem confronting the children of Muslim women of the region who marry Arab nationals, who are often not seeking any dowry. There are thousands of women in the region, who were oncee married and dumped later by Arab nationals. Arabs are not concerned of money. Instead asking dowry, the Arabs are providing `meher’ worth a few thousands of rupees to the family of the minor girl. Kunhamina of Kuttikattoor, who married Yemeni national named Abdulla Quid Ahmed years back, is now knocking at every door to get citizenship to her two sons, who were born outside India. Subaida of Pallikandy also has the same problem. Her three daughters need citizenship.
``Officials are claiming now that there is a significant drop in the number of Arab marriages due to a number of arrests in the recent years. But now things are done secretly. The people in these regions know Arab, Mysore and minor marriages take place, but will not tell you where, when, how or who is getting married,’’ points out K Shuhaib, a social activist.
The clergy and other orthodox elements are very vigilant against the interaction of `minor wives’ about their troubled life to press, authorities or social organizations. All the representatives of the clergy, whom this magazine contacted to get their version of such incidents, refused to talk. There were attempts in places like Ramankuthu and Chandakunnu to forcibly prevent us from talking to the victims.
Fearing wrath of clergy and its vote bank politics, no political party in Kerala is ready take up the issue. The Women’s Commission is also seems helpless. Since Muslim Personal Law does not specify the marriageable age for women, religious heads are encouraging the practice and sanction the onset of puberty as the ideal age for marriage.
The rise in minor marriages is making the district a doctors’ nightmare. According to some health activists, Malappuram has one of the highest maternal death rates. A recent survey conducted among 100 below -18 mothers found that 36.1 per cent of the neonates were underweight. Minor mothers also suffer several miscarriages.
``The male dominated clergy is least bothered about these poor women and their unfortunate children. The general lack of education and awareness is also making the situation complex. Poverty and dowry system are also playing spoilsport with their lives,’’ says Suhara.