“Sheikh Marriages” and Human Trafficking in Hyderabad

Writer and poet Nabina Das writes about how girls from old city Hyderabad are trafficked into “sheikh-marriages” transported as “brides” on a “khadima” or maidservant visa, to begin an unending and horrifying life of slavery abroad.

Shah Jahan from Hassan Nagar in old city Hyderabad is barely 30 years old. She studied till fifth class and discontinued her education because of extreme poverty at home. The oldest daughter of a watchman who earned very little, she had four siblings and her mother was stricken with blood cancer. In order to look after her siblings, Shah Jahan worked for the agarbatti industry, which meant that she could work from home. Most of her childhood any way was spent at home where she did all the housework. Later, she was married off to a sheikh from a Gulf country, that fetched her family a good amount of money. The treatment for her mother’s cancer became a reality.

Speak of the old city and one is reminded of the beautiful lac bangles, objets d’arts, dry fruits, the Charminar, and haleem smell wafting in the holy month of Ramzan. Nothing but a sweet lull and rhythm invade this life. But within the lanes and byelanes a sinister racket of human trafficking has been active.

It would do us well to remember that a declining girl child sex ratio over the decades has added complex layers to issues in gender justice all over the country. In the age group 0 -6 years, the sex ratio (number of girls for every 1,000 boys) plunged from 1,010 in 1941 to 927 in 2001, as per a UNICEF report. As per a study from the current government, Telangana apparently had only one “Gender Critical District” while the census figures for child sex ratio (CSR) in 1991, 2001 and 2011 are shown as “not available”. One can only speculate the extent of gild child discrimination in the absence of proper data collation and focused help,

Too good to be true for girls of Shah Jahan’s background for whom to be married abroad is not even a dream. And a Hyderabadi wedding, for even the poorest of the poor, is time for celebrations.

However, marrying the sheikh didn’t turn out to be a happy story for Shah Jahan. In a few days she was abandoned. Shah Jahan is one of the many victims of sordid human trafficking, routine in the old city areas of Hyderabad. She became pregnant, and shut herself from the rest of the world. Until Shaheen Women’s Resource and Welfare Association came to know her story, she worked as a “khadima” or maid servant in another country and continued to face violence.

Since 2002, Shaheen an NGO has targeted trafficking of young girls from the Old City. Age, sex, socio-economic situation, literacy, and community identity are key factors in determining whether girls are vulnerable to traffic king. Some of them do not return or even live to tell the tale.

Take the case of Farzana who has three sisters and two brothers. While Farzana’s mother is a domestic worker, the father is bereft of any sense of responsibility. Apart from helping her mother, at home they took up agarbatti making. At the age of 14 Farzana married a 76 year-old sheikh from Oman. The groom, apparently, had three wives already. Married for money, Farzana was tortured bitterly and the agreed amount was also not given to her family. She raised money to send to her parents by doing domestic work in Oman. Meanwhile, she became pregnant and delivered a boy.

The young Farzana arranged her elder sister’s marriage while continuing domestic work at Oman. She bought a house for her parents in India and also took the responsibility and arranged money for the marriages of her two younger sisters. Later she delivered a second son. Meanwhile, her health deteriorated and she contracted cancer. Farzana died at the age of 21 years. As per Oman’s law, her two sons were handed over to her husband.
The girls, who live on, are subjected to all forms of sexual abuse and torture, and many of them never come back home. The few that do, narrate horrendous tales of slavery and cruelty. Among the parents then, the aversion to giving birth to a girl child is apparent and strong.

How does one go about unearthing this heinous chain of events? Regular interaction with the community and collaboration with the media, women’s organizations, and the administration remain key factors in obtaining access to this information, the foundation informs. And even with these measures, the frequency of trafficking continues unabated owing to underhand secret deals still proliferating in old city Hyderabad neighbourhoods.

Founder and Director of Shaheen, Jameela Nishat stressed that as a focused initiative, they regularly organise awareness programmes on various issues and legal literacy programmes to adolescent girls and young women of the old city. This has had some visible good results. Young girls have started shedding their inhibitions and coming out into the open to report such abhorrent crimes.

It all started with a painting by a child Nishat once met.

“It was the summer vacations and I invited the children over to do painting as an artistic free mingling in the old city. One of the girls, a 14 year-old, had drawn a beautiful bird and I could almost feel the flesh of the bird. But it seemed something was missing in that painting. And I asked her.”

The teenage girl rushed back to the painting, drew a cage over the bird, and indicated to Nishat that now the painting was complete.

“That’s when I realized there was more to these children’s lives, especially girls, than what the eye saw. I started talking to them, chatting them up. The cage, the bird, the vulnerability, and the nefarious trafficking rings. It started coming out. Shaheen was born.”

But this is the India of bans, prohibitions, AFSPA violence, the gagging of freedom of speech, ban on beef eating, and suppressing women’s, Dalits’, Adivasis’ and minorities’ rights. It would be hard to imagine that Shaheen would not face any opposition to its thoughtful intervention practices. It was not easy to simply begin counseling of women and young girls in old city. Earlier on, Shaheen was also attacked by the women in respective communities themselves for mobilising and educating girls and women on their rights. Of course the last straw was the men attacking Shaheen with their strong condemnation.

“A fatwa was issued in 2009 and the case was nullified in the court,” informed Sujatha Raj, a project coordinator with Shaheen.

More than 33 percent of old city households have girls married to Arab men, an alarming figure. Often, as ridiculous as it may sound, the girls are forced into temporary marriages or Muta marriages for 15 days. The life post-marriage and divorce is extremely exploitative for the women, who are often forced into prostitution.

The heartening aspect in all this, however, is that in sting operations on trafficking, some of the men from old city neighbourhoods played the role of father and women played the role of mother in order to expose the traffickers organising “marriages”.

Reshma, a 16 year old from Hassan Nagar, used to be harassed every day by her mother: “Look at others in the neighborhood, how fast they are becoming well off. We are not able to have two meals a day.”

Her parents decided to marry her off to an old Arab sheikh against Reshma’s will. Fieldworkers came to know about Reshma’s marriage and planned for a sting operation. Reshma became an observer in the sting operation in her own “marriage” to the sheikh. She convinced her parents to stop the proceedings.

As of now, girls have been advised to call child help line 1098 if they are in the situation of trapping. Local police officials have been invited to interact with women and girls of the affected communities. This has resulted in immediate response to complaints of women and girls. Public demonstrations on issues of trafficking leading to torture and death have also sought to motivate men and women to formulate their own decisions of marriage. Trafficking after all is a major contributing factor to son preference for most of India. What is happening in old city Hyderabad is a bold example of communities rising up against the scourge.

Supported By girls count2and Logo  .


  • Kala Ramesh says:

    This is stark. Thank you for bringing such things to light. Shocking really.

  • Kala Ramesh says:

    This is stark. Thank you for bringing such things to light. Shocking really.
    Kala Ramesh

  • Irfan says:

    The stark realities in old city needs to be highlighted in every fora, and more interventions are needed to improve quality education to girl child and employability to women
    • State can introduce legislative measures for affirmative action i.e reservations in education and employment to the Muslims with the help of the findings of the social researchers to initiate affirmative actions to bring the Muslim community socially, educationally and economically on par with rest of the communities – specially attention will be required for the under privileged women amongst Muslims.

  • A pleasant surprise that NFI’s strands, though oblivious to the common thread, converge so beautifully. Nabina, congrats from an ex colleague. Shaheen too is a NFI partner. Girls Count and Reachout are ofcourse the other two stakeholders

  • mohammed anees says:

    Please carry on your work we are always their to support to you.

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