Many poor families exploited by the practice of ‘Arabikalyanam’

“I still like him. As long as he was in touch, he took care of me and our three children,” says 45-year-old Nafeesa (name changed) when asked about Hassan Mohammad, an Iranian who married her 30 years ago. He left a few weeks after the marriage, only to make that odd visit once in a while. The last she heard from him was during a short phone conversation more than a decade ago. Now she works as a housemaid in the city.

Ms. Nafeesa is one of the thousands of women whose marriages now go by the name of “Arabikalyanam,” an umbrella term which covers all marriages between traders from West Asia and the women of Malabar. The practice died out at the turn of the millennium, but the odd case keeps surfacing occasionally, as the recent marriage of a minor girl from an orphanage with a UAE national and the later divorce.

The streets of Kuttichira, Mukhadhar and Kallai in coastal Malabar, which were once the epicentres of maritime trade, are home to these broken families. Arab nationals in flowing white robes were a familiar sight during Ms. Nafeesa’s childhood.

“Meher,” a payment (of money, clothing and ornaments) from the groom’s family, was one of the attractions for these poor families to marry off their daughters to Arabs. Ms. Nafeesa’s family got Rs.1,000 and a few clothes. The lack of educational avenues also made these families marry off their daughters early.

A parallel economy had developed around such marriages with brokers and agents who doubled up as matchmakers and translators.

Tracing the origins of the practice, N.P. Hafeez Mohammed, writer, says it started on a large scale towards the 1960s, though such relations have existed right from the origins of Arab trade links in the seventh century.

“The Arab traders who came here and got married were mostly of the labour class. The ones from the upper classes rarely came here. For them, the marriages were a source of sexual enjoyment during their brief stay. The conservative religious leaders also supported such marriages,” Mr. Mohammed says.

Most of these marriages survived hardly six months, the period of stay of these trading dhows.

But some of them have come back and taken back their wives and children to their native land, as in the case of the three daughters of Ms. Nafeesa’s relative who are now living with their husbands in Iran. Such happy endings though were only a handful.

There have been Arabs who have married more than one woman from the same area and also cases of women marrying another Arab after the first divorce.

The children of such marriages are sometimes taken by their fathers to Arab countries. But when they come back, the problem of citizenship arises.

The first voice of protest against the practice came through literature. P.A. Mohammed Koya’s Surumayitta Kannukal and N.P. Mohammed’s Ennapadam written in the 1960s were sharp critiques of “Arabikalyanam.” The progressive and women’s rights organisations took up the issue following this.

The Gulf boom when Malayalis went in droves to the Gulf countries started the waning phase of “Arabikalyanams.” With the affluence and the increase in education levels that came with the boom, most families in the coastal belt did not have to depend on “meher” for survival.

“Though such marriages ended a decade ago, they have continued to take place in different forms. The visiting Arabs now concentrate on orphanages or colleges run by NGOs, whose authorities are happy to marry off one of their wards in return for a ‘payment’ to the trust. One such case came to light a few years ago in a college in Malappuram and now this recent one in Kozhikode. There is surely more of it happening behind the scenes,” says V.P. Zuhara, founder of Nisa Progressive Muslim Women’s forum.