Malabar Muslim marriages are known for their grandeur, irrespective of the families’ financial status. Elaborate pre-nuptial ceremony mailanchi, traditional folk song mappila paattu, and grand Malabar cuisine mark the celebrations.
In the tiny village of Nhangattiri in Thrithala panchayat of Palakkad district in northern Kerala, 21-year-old Rukia is troubled. A desperate quiet looms in her house. Her parents have been relentlessly knocking the doors of many, seeking loans to marry Rukia off.
Despite being financially weak, Rukia worked hard and became a college graduate. While her parents try to get money for her marriage, Rukia mentally prepares herself to migrate from her well-endowed village to a low-income neighborhood in Salem in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.
Rukia is one of the many brides from Palakkad district to get married to men, often with lower or no educational qualifications, in districts such as Salem, Tiruppur and Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu. The marriages have come to be referred to as Salem marriages.
Increasing dowry demands
In northern Kerala, a center of progressive movements, earlier among Hindus there was no practice of taking dowry. It was prevalent among Muslims, but it was a token amount that did not burden the girls’ families. Now it is a statewide phenomenon. Observers find the social change as an impact of consumerism. Hindus have also started demanding dowry. Some young men see it as an option for funding their new enterprises.
In the narrow streets of Nhangattiri, palatial houses with the latest luxury cars in their garages juxtapose small and dilapidated mud huts with tin sheet roofs. In a village with a population of about 5,000 people, one in every three households has a family member working in the gulf.
The villagers’ occupation varies from being quarry workers and load men to being government employees and owning small commercial establishments. The women work as agricultural laborers, anganwadi assistants, sales assistants in retail shops and the like. The men going to the gulf work as gardeners, slaughterhouse workers, hotel staff and a few as engineers.
Remittances from the gulf have brought about obvious changes, reflected in their houses. “As the village develops fast, the dowry to be paid by the bride to the groom has also increased,” Idros, a social worker in Nhangattiri told VillageSquare.in.
Indicative of the dowry demand is the gold trade in the state. According to veteran financial journalist George Joseph, the trade in Kerala is worth Rs 80,000 crore annually.
Being a graduate, Rukia had dreamt of an educated Malayali groom. Due to financial constraints and the high dowry demands of local men, Rukia’s parents fixed her marriage to a bus driver who has not completed his school education.
“For getting a Kerala groom, my parents should be able to give at least Rs 10 lakh as dowry,” a tearful Rukia told VillageSquare.in. “Otherwise I should be as beautiful as Aishwarya Rai.”
P.A. Rahman owns a mobile repair shop. The 28-year-old graduate has been on the lookout for a suitable bride in and around his village for a long time. He was not hesitant to disclose his demands. “Bride must be capable of gifting at least Rs 10 lakh, 50 sovereigns of gold, a new car and bear at least half of the marriage expenses.”
Rahman is well aware of the law against dowry. Yet he dreams of luxury at the cost of another family. He defends his demand, saying, “What I want is for my wife’s benefits too. Without financial stability how can one have a happy family life,” he told VillageSquare.in.
Brokers, a new breed
With a considerable number of Rahmans and Rukias, Salem marriages have increased in number, leading to a new vocation. A number of marriage brokers have sprung up to facilitate the inter-state marriages.
Komalavalli is a busy woman. Parents from economically poor background request her for proposals from Tamil men who seek only one-tenth of the dowry demanded by Kerala men. She is considered a reliable marriage broker in the region. She has conducted around 150 Salem marriages in the last two years.
Komalavalli is regularly in touch with the marriage brokers of Salem, exchanging details of prospective brides and grooms. She is not hesitant to reveal the economics of her brokerage. “I get Rs 25,000 from the girl’s family,” she told VillageSquare.in. “The Salem broker gets around Rs 5,000 from the groom.”
Though Kerala is known for progressive movement and social emancipation, many social evils still prevail in many parts of the state. As per police records, dowry-related deaths increased from seven in 2015 to 24 in 2016.
The phenomenon of Salem marriages started 10 years ago, but has rapidly increased in the last five years. Though such marriages were confined to Muslim population, other marginalized are also opting for it now. According to Idros, women belonging to poor families are the biggest sufferers. “Had all religious groups made a clarion call against dowry, situation would have been different,” social worker Suma told VillageSquare.in.
A handful of mahal mosque committees, pointed out that around 200 Salem marriages took place in the past two years, in Thrithala and Pattambi administrative blocks. Out of the 28 women VillageSquare.in spoke to, 22 revealed that they led miserable lives. Among them, 12 were chronically sick and three suffered mental health ailments.
Jasmin, who is 30, got married to a man in Erode four years back. She had come to Nhangattiri for her sister’s wedding, also a Salem marriage. It was a shift from a reasonably comfortable life to a worse situation for her. Illness, compounded by the discovery that her husband was already married and had a family, besides extra-marital relationships drove Jasmin to a failed suicide attempt. “With two kids, I have no option but to live in Erode,” she told VillageSquare.in.
For the Tamil men, it is a better bargain as they get educated wives who are economically better than them. They too demand dowry, mostly Rs 1 lakh. Muhammed Hussain, a Salem groom who married a Malabar girl recently by receiving Rs 1 lakh as dowry defends the marriages.
“None of the brides migrating to Tamil Nadu are being sexually exploited,” he told VillageSquare.in. According to him some women could not get accustomed to the socio-economic atmosphere of a different place. “It is better to advice your young men to reduce the dowry demand than portraying Salem marriages as a disastrous social evil.”
“For a girl in a Kerala village, not unemployment, but dowry is the biggest challenge,” Shahida Kamal, member of Kerala Women’s Commission told VillageSquare.in. She has decided to embark on an awareness campaign against the prevailing dowry system, especially in the context of Salem marriages.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
K. Rajendran is a journalist based in Kerala.