Cashing in on the naivete of uneducated and conservative families, a shocking fraud where lakhs of rupees change hands with each ‘marriage transactions’ has been thriving in Kozhikode for the last few months. Legal experts and women NGOs like Anweshi and NISA are foxed by this alarming new trend in the ‘marriage trade’ where the bride-to-be is required to pay off her husband's current wife.
They may call it alimony in the civilised world but this is a crude version where the first wife would be lucky to get off with the money her family had paid her husband many years ago. In many cases, these hapless women are coerced to sign for a larger amount while only a fraction of it is actually paid to her. What is more, her husband has no future responsibility to look after the children from the marriage that has thus been annulled.
This is how it operates. A youngster from a relatively poor family manages to find a bride with a substantial dowry, though the word dowry is rarely used. He opens a business or lands a job using this money – he might even manage to go abroad – the thought of acquiring a better social status and a new wife creeps in.
Taking advantage of the liberal marital laws existing in his community, he decides to remarry. Once he finds a girl who fits the bill, the negotiations begin. Getting rid of the existing wife and children becomes the major headache.
Finally, the new-found bride and her family are compelled to repay the first wife's dowry. Some families even do this without much compelling, said NGOs. All this is done under the cover of an ‘agreement’ entered between husband and wife.
What’s interesting is that this practice is not confined to a particular community in Kozhikode. The NGOs have stumbled upon the fraud in both Muslim and Hindu communities, but with slight modifications tailored to suit the different marriage laws. More than 100 such incidents have been reported by Anweshi alone.
Legal experts say that the majority of the cases are linked with the middle and lower middle class families of the Muslim community. “As far as Hindus are concerned, such an agreement is not legally valid until the divorce. So, the man would come to a tacit understanding with his prospective bride's family regarding the pay-off for his current wife,” said A C Ambika, senior advocate and legal advisor to Anweshi.
The agreement would be crafted in such a manner as to create the impression that the husband and wife had mutually agreed to the divorce and the former had gifted a substantial sum to the latter.
Also it would emphasise that the wife was fully satisfied with the settlement and she would not question it in Court.
Ambika said that the agreement only serves the interest of the husband as he ensures his former wife does not drag him into trouble.
“What is shocking is the fact that the women come up with complaints not because their husbands divorce them without reason but because this so-called marriage contract has been violated. And, even after registering complaints both parties always try to make a settlement without our knowledge,” says Anitha, senior counsellor with Anweshi in Kozhikode.
Activist V P Suhara, who has been vocal against the misuse of Islamic marriage laws, said that the police cases are rarely registered since the girls are usually minors when they are married off. “If you really want to end the exploitation of Muslim women, make marriage registration mandatory. Now, marriages are properly registered only for official purposes like getting a passport,” she said.