Guest Post by LOVISH GARG
Ameena Begum was only ten years old when she was married to a man old enough to be her grandfather. The man- a 60-year-old Arab from Saudi Arabia had come to her house in Hyderabad to see Ameena’s elder sister for marriage but found her to be too ‘ugly and dark.’ He instead expressed desire to marry the young Ameena which the father readily agreed in exchange for a paltry sum of Rs 6,000. She was later rescued by Amrita Ahluwalia- then an air-hostess with Indian Airlines after she found the young girl crying inconsolably on the Hyderabad-Delhi flight in-route to Saudi Arabia.
This incident put the global spotlight for the first time on the practice of ‘bride-shopping’ in the old city area of Hyderabad where minor Muslim girls from poverty-stricken families are married to older, mostly Arab men for a small sum of money. About three decades after this incident of August 1991- nothing much has changed and the practice of Sheikh marriages continue unabated with estimates suggesting around 2000 of such marriages performed only in the last one year.
The genesis of Sheikh marriages can be traced to the late 19th century when the Nizam of Hyderabad started hiring Chaush Arabs from what is the present-day Yemen. These men served as the military guards and later on high positions in the Nizam’s army and administration. The Arabs also brought with them the ritual of offering gifts and dowry to families who would marry their daughters to them. However, when oil stuck in the Gulf and situation in Hyderabad turned chaotic because of the rising peasant movement and later fall of Nizam- many such Chaush Arabs returned to their homelands.