They are old predators with new vigour. Often bearded, invariably in flowing robes and expensive turbans. The rich, middle-aged Arabs increasingly stalk the deprived streets of Hyderabad like medieval monarchs would stalk their harems in days that we wrongly think are history. These Viagra enabled Arabs are perpetrating a blatant crime under the veneer of nikaah, the Islamic rules of marriage. 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," says Jameela Nishat, who counsels and sensitises young women against the malaise. Two of her volunteers, Shahida Yasmeen and Tasneem Sultana, in their early twenties experienced the trauma of being scanned by an old Arab. A few months ago, they accompanied an undercover television reporter who was following these sham marriages. They reached a home where half a dozen other prospective brides were gathered. "It resembled a brothel. The girls were paraded before the Arab who would lift the girls' burqa, run his fingers through their hair, gaze at their figures and converse through an interpreter," says Yasmeen recalling
Most girls inspected by the Arab were minors, and forced by a complex union of their parents and Islamic clerics to yield to the preliminary probes of the Arab.
Curiously, the high priests of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the fatwa brigade of Darul Uloom Deoband, who are gearing up to defend the legality of Islamic Courts in the Supreme Court, seem to have shut their eyes to this phenomenon that is aided and abetted by Hyderabad's Qazis or clerics.
Many Qazis prepare both marriage and divorce formalities together. While marriages require the grooms to be present, divorces are a bit different. A talaaq can be given verbally, through a letter, an email, telegraph, phone or even sms. "Many talaaqs are coming through sms these days," confirms Mufti Abdul Ahad Falahi, a Qazi at a Darul Qaza in Mumbai.
"If a woman who has received an intimation of talaaq doubts its veracity, she can check with her husband. If he accepts he has sent the message, the talaaq will be valid."
Most Qazis solemnise these sham marriages in complete violation of Islamic principles of nikaah and talaaq. A woman cannot be married off to another man unless her first husband gives her a divorce, or she has sought khula (separation) and has completed idat (a period of three menstrual cycles from the day of the talaaq).
Maulana Hameeduddin Aqil, head of a prominent Muslim body Millat-e-Islamia, dismisses such marriages as sinful. "They are committing a sin. It's not nikaah, it's prostitution by another name," says the frail, seventy five year old.
Impoverished and easily lured by the promise of a better future, many Muslim parents are increasingly pushing their daughters into this flesh trade that has a convenient respectability of an Islamic marriage. The Arabs, in collusion with the greedy Qazis, marry girls for a short period. In some cases, for a night.
On the first of August, forty five year old Al Rahman Ismail Mirza Abdul Jabbar, a Sheikh from the UAE, approached a broker in these matters, seventy year old Zainab Bi in the walled city, near the historic Char Minar. The broker procured Farheen Sultana and Hina Sultana, aged between thirteen and fifteen, for twenty thousand rupees. Then he hired Qazi Mohammed Abdul Waheed Qureshi to solemnise the marriage. The Qazi, taking advantage of an Islamic provision, married the girls off to the Arab. After the wedding night with the girls, the Arab left at dawn.
The girls' parents were promised their share of the booty by the broker but when it didn't, they went to the media. The girls are not too disturbed by the whole episode.
"The Arab would have given us money. We can't marry an Indian because our parents are too poor to pay dowry," the girls told Noorjahan Sidddiqui, a co-ordinator with Confederation of Voluntary Association, a Hyderabad-based NGO.
Muslim families that cannot afford to match the dowry demands of Indian grooms, are the first preys of old Arab grooms who not only give them the sanctity of marriage but also thousands of rupees. Unlike in India, in the Arab countries, it's the boys who pay girls the dowry. While rich Arabs go West to get white brides, transitory or otherwise, those with modest revenue streams look towards the East, especially Hyderabad where it seems, a well-oiled machinery is in place.
Hyderabad has a long history with Arabs. During their heydays, the Nizams (1724-1948) recruited many Arabs in their army. Subsequently, some of them guarded the Nizams' coffers and their harems too. Many Arabs married local girls and settled in the Barkas area of Hyderabad (it resembles an Arab street even today).
Muslim politicians in the city never took the issue seriously. "It's not on the poll agenda of any politician," says Mazhar Hussain, director of Confederation of Voluntary Associations, a social welfare outfit. Even Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslameen, the party that Hyderabad's Muslims have voted repeatedly, has done nothing about it.
You cannot deny that the fortunes of many families have changed through such marriages,"
argues MIM's seventy three year old president Sultan Salahuddin Owaisi , seated at his palatial
bungalow situated at a distance from the filthy slums of his faithful voters. Not politicians, not Islamic clerics, not even a majority of citizens, it appears, are too angered by the issue.
In the middle of this small world that looks part victimised and part practical, is a local mosque where a Friday sermon is coming to an end. A lanky imam reads out an "important" announcement: A Muslim body invites the faithful to discuss the evil effects of Television.