India’s Marriage Pipeline to the Mideast


At age 15, Farzana Begum followed a line of 25 girls into a hotel room and stood before a graying, toothless Arab looking for a bride. “He asked me if I liked him,” she said. “I just nodded.”

The man paid Begum’s parents $30, brought her home to the Middle East and booted her out after she bore him a son.

Begum, now 25 and back with her parents, is one of Hyderabad’s “Arab-affected” women. She seldom leaves her home and rarely peeks from behind her black veil.

“I don’t want to get married again,” she said.


In this southern Indian city of narrow streets and spiraling minarets, there are scores of “Arab-affected” women. They are the refuse of an unusual pipeline that stretches from the middle-class neighborhoods of the Middle East to the heavily Muslim slums of the subcontinent. Lured by the easy availability of girls from Muslim families too poor to pay the huge dowries Indian grooms often demand, Middle Eastern men find often desperate parents willing to turn over their daughters for tiny amounts of cash.

The practice, which authorities say grew out of the oil boom in the Persian Gulf, supports a network of hotels and brokers, who get a finder’s fee for each girl they marry off.

Sometimes the marriages succeed and last, say the parents and relatives of women married to men in the Middle East. More often, however, they are brief and end badly, with the groom gone and the bride--usually still a girl--forever disgraced. And, according to some of the women who fled, some of the marriages amount to little more than slavery, with young brides arriving in the Middle East to find they are wanted only for housework, belly dancing or sex.

While individual stories are impossible to verify--some of the women displayed marriage documents and travel records, while others, like Begum, had none--many women here claim they were discarded by their husbands and forced to leave children behind. Because many of the “Arab-affected” women are poor and illiterate, they can’t challenge their husbands or visit their children.

Indian authorities say they know of the practice and try to arrest offenders, particularly men who marry girls. But they say they are often thwarted by the passivity of India’s Muslims, who follow their own traditions rather than Indian law.

The men who seek young Indian brides here would not be interviewed. Despite repeated efforts, in India and in the Middle East, the husbands of the women interviewed could not be reached for comment. Envoys to and from Middle Eastern nations contacted about the “Arab-affected” women said they were unaware of them or described their problems as a matter for Indian authorities.

For example, Nawab Warsi, press officer at the United Arab Emirates’ embassy in India, observed, “We know nothing of this problem in our country.”

Because Islamic tradition often affords men near-total discretion in matters of divorce, and often allows girls to marry in their early teens, few of India’s “Arab-affected” women feel they have any power to change their lives.

The persistence of the practice, and the failure of public officials here to do much about it, reflects India’s continuing struggle to accommodate a Muslim minority of 95 million in a country dominated by the Hindu faith.

Still, some people in India want to end the practice. Muslim leaders in this city recently launched a campaign to discourage it. And some national leaders are trying to force Muslims to drop their traditions and follow Indian law.

“Don’t blame the Arabs for this,” said Amrita Ahluwalia, a Hindu who is active in women’s issues in Hyderabad. “Blame the Indians. They are the ones selling their children.”

When Men Arrive, Brokers Get to Work

In Hyderabad, the stories of the “Arab-affected” women usually begin in the Barkas, a predominantly Muslim quarter of town. A man arrives from the Middle East in search of a bride, word spreads quickly, and the brokers get to work. “We try to assemble all the girls under one roof,” said Mir, a marriage broker who spoke on the condition his last name not be used.

Mir, 40, a taxi driver with a vacant gaze, plays professional matchmaker to earn extra money. He takes a cut of whatever the groom offers the bride’s family, usually about $50. “When we get all the girls assembled, the man looks them over and makes a selection,” he said.

Most of the marriages end after a night or a couple of weeks, when the man departs, Mir said. “Most of them are just looking for a good time,” he said.

Mir should know. He married off one of his daughters, Kulsum, 15, to a man from the Middle East for $85. The groom dumped her after one night. “I thought I was going to be a very wealthy man,” Mir said.

Now Mir holds out little hope that his daughter will find a proper husband. “No boy from a good family will come forward to marry her now,” he said. “Perhaps a widower.”

In Hyderabad, many of the “Arab-affected” women congregate at the Andhra Pradesh Mahila Welfare Society, a charitable organization that has taught several dozen of them to sew.

There, Begum, who was chosen as a spouse from a lineup, recalled how the toothless man who was to be her husband picked her.

Her round white face framed by a black burka, Begum dropped her veil to tell her story. Like many of the women interviewed, she spoke haltingly at first, staring at the floor and pausing between words. Gradually, Begum’s words began to flow, and, soon, she was even laughing when describing her former husband’s physical appearance.

In line in the hotel room, Begum said, she waited to be picked. First, she said, the man chose five finalists and sent the rest of the girls home. Although Begum did not speak the man’s language, Arabic, the broker offered to translate into her native Urdu. “I tried not to consider his physical appearance,” Begum said. “I thought if I got married, I would alleviate my family’s misery.”

Begum’s mother, Habeeb Un Nissa, said she saw great promise in her daughter’s marriage. At the time, her husband was recovering from eye surgery and unable to work. A mother of four daughters and two sons, she was working as a domestic servant for about $2 a week. Nissa said she feared that if her daughter married an Indian man, she and her husband would have had to pay a huge dowry to the groom’s family.

Because the Middle Eastern tradition often works the other way--with the groom paying the bride’s family--Nissa, like many Indian Muslims, decided to marry her daughter to an Arab. “All the responsibility for our family was on me,” Nissa said, seated next to her daughter. “I tried to do the right thing.”

Because Begum was 15 at the time, her marriage was illegal under Indian law. But according to a tradition practiced by many Muslims here, Begum was considered fit to marry because she had begun to menstruate.

It is unclear how Begum’s marriage became legal. Mir, the marriage broker, offered a clue: Few families here have birth certificates, so they can just lie about their daughters’ ages to the clerics who sanctify such marriages.

Satturu Umpathi, Hyderabad’s deputy commissioner of police, said his department tries to arrest foreign nationals who marry girls. But it is difficult, he says, because the parents rarely cooperate. “It is very bothering to us,” Umpathi said. “There is nothing we can do unless we get complaints from parents.”

Lives Turn Out Unlike Expectations

Mahmood bin Muhammed, the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said men in the Middle East look to India as a place where they can get obedient wives for less than it would cost them at home.

“They have to pay a lot more for a wife there,” Muhammed said. “The impression is that Indian women make good wives, that they put the interest of the man first.”

Many of the girls who are shuttled to the Middle East discover that their new lives do not turn out as they imagined. Ayesha, a Muslim woman, said her parents married her to an Arab when she was 13. She says her passport was forged to show that she was older. Her husband was 42.

When she arrived in Qatar, Ayesha found that her husband was already married and the father of 14 children. Ayesha was told to look after them. “I was a prisoner,” she said.

Ayesha said she fled her home after her husband tried to force her into belly dancing and prostitution. She alerted police and eventually returned to Hyderabad. She lives with relatives.

Begum said she arrived in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and found a surprise: Her husband already had three wives and 16 children. He ordered Begum to feed and clean up after them.

Begum gave birth to a son, Khalid, in 1988. Two months after he was born, Begum said, her husband put her on a plane to India--with a one-way ticket and no visa to return. Begum has not seen her son since. “I don’t even have a photograph of him,” she said.

Nor does Begum have a photograph of her husband, nor documents to show that she was married. She did provide the name and address of a man in the United Arab Emirates. Attempts to reach him, however, were unsuccessful.

Recently, a religious group called the Muslim Youth Movement has tried to convince poor Muslim families that marrying off their daughters to Middle Eastern men is contrary to Islam. “These marriages are illegal,” said Mushtaq Malik, the group’s president. “Islamic law says you have to know the social and economic background of the groom and his family. These men are strangers.”

For Muslims, however, there is no central authority that offers a final interpretation and enforcement of Islamic laws. Traditions often vary greatly from country to country.

Malik’s group has tacked up posters around Hyderabad urging Muslim parents to resist the pressure to pay a dowry. It is that pressure, he says, that often prompts families to marry off their daughters to foreigners. “Marry simply,” the poster exhorts.

Umpathi, the deputy police commissioner, says the root of the problem lies in the fact that India’s Muslims tend to follow their own traditions regarding family life.

India allows Muslims wide latitude in such matters. It is one of the ways in which the Hindu majority here has tried to accommodate the nation’s large Muslim minority in the 50 years of independence from Britain.

Different Laws for Different People

Indian law, for instance, forbids those younger than 18 to marry and provides for alimony and child support in divorce. Yet under traditions practiced in several Arab states, girls younger than 18 may marry, and the option of divorce is left almost entirely up to the husband. “What other country in the world has different laws for different people?” Umpathi asked.

One of India’s largest political parties wants Muslims and Hindus to follow the same domestic laws.

“Women are the victims,” said Sushma Swaraj, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is pushing the change. But because the BJP is a mostly Hindu party, some Muslims say they are being singled out. “This is not a religious problem. It’s a social problem,” Malik said.

As for Begum, these days she tries to help her family by stitching sequins onto saris, a trade she learned at the women’s center. She usually can complete one sari in a week, earning about $6.

The needlework, she says, helps her cope. “Sometimes, I become disinterested in life,” Begum said. “Sewing keeps me occupied. It brings me a little happiness.”

Her greatest hope, she said, is to see her son. She used an Indian aphorism to gauge her chances. “If only wishes were horses,” she said.