Asma arrived in Kashmir 15 years ago on what she thought would be the holiday of her lifetime. Instead she was married off to a man living in Srinagar who was at least thrice her age. She was just shy of 15 years. She had lived all her life in Krishnaganj, a village in West Bengal’s Nadia district. She didn’t know a single word of Kashmiri or even Hindi.
“I don’t know my husband’s age, but he looks old enough to be my grandfather now,” says Asma.
She isn’t the only Bengali bride in Boatman colony, a poor neighbourhood in the heart of Srinagar. There are close to 200 such “non-Kashmiri’’ women in this colony of a few thousand households, according to some estimates. For years now, child brides from rural Bengal have been married off to Kashmiri men – typically widowed men who are old, poor and, in some cases, physically challenged.
These girls, often from impoverished Muslim families, are sold for anything between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000. They leave their homes as teenagers, or are tricked into doing so, and end up in the valley married to men who are unlikely to find a local bride. With no money and so far from home, they are stuck in a strange land that they grudgingly learn to accept.
Asma herself didn’t know she was to be married off until she arrived in Srinagar with her relative. Asma was an infant when her mother died; she and her brother were raised by their grandparents. Their father had married again but he passed away soon after. It was Asma’s stepmother who had sent her to Kashmir.
It took her months to learn the few basic words necessary to make her life in the household simpler. For a long time, she could not speak a language other than her mother tongue, Bangla.
I didn’t have (a) choice earlier,” she says. And now? “This is my family. I have nothing besides this.” She refuses to say whether she has grown to love her husband of 15 years.
The Boatman’s Colony
Nearly two decades ago, “Dal dwellers”, mostly fishermen who lived on the banks of the tributaries of the river Jehlum and along Kashmir’s famous Dal Lake, were moved to what is now Boatmen Colony. The decision, which uprooted them from waters where they had survived as fishermen or boatmen, hit their earnings and pushed them closer to poverty. Now, the neighbourhood is also infamous for drugs and gambling.
Rights activists say this practise of buying brides from elsewhere has become increasingly common in rural areas and other parts of Srinagar in the past decade. They say rising poverty is a major cause. A lower middle class mohalla in Lal Bazar has two such brides living a few blocks from one another. Both the women weren’t willing to talk. But neighbours, who chose to remain anonymous, says one of them struggled to settle into her new life in Srinagar.
Neighbours say she was married off to a man who is “somewhat mentally challenged,” and that she “could not come to terms with it.”
“She would fight with her husband, her inlaws …she was a rebel.” But, they say, that was a few years ago. Now, she has a three-year-old daughter, and she has “settled.”
Trading brides for money has grown because marrying local women is more expensive. Rafiqa, a resident of Kolkata’s Howrah area, has been married in Srinagar for 22 years now. Her husband, Farooq Ahmed, is a labourer. She says Muslim brides often receive ‘haq Mehr’, a payment mandated by Islamic law, in the form of money or possessions from the groom or his family. While local brides are often paid lakhs of rupees as ‘mehr’, brides from West Bengal, Rafiqa says, get peanuts.
“Most of the money is taken by the brokers, who are either relatives or professional agents. We get a few thousand may be,’’ she adds.
The brides themselves are often in the dark, unaware of the “deals.’” Even families aren’t always in no the trade; many agree because they think the girls will be employed. Those who do know are duped by relatives who show them photographs of young, good-looking men as their prospective grooms. When they find out the truth, the young girls are shocked but helpless in the face of poverty and distance. They have no way out.
Kashmir’s snow-capped peaks and gorgeous valleys are 1200 miles from the villages these girls call home. Everything about the place is new and strange for them.
“I used to feel very cold here,’’ says Rafiqa, now a mother of seven children. In the 22 years she has been here, she hasn’t met anyone from her family back home. She’s never revisited her village. “We are too poor to travel that far,’’ she says.
The girls slowly get used to Noon Chai, the pink, salted Kashmiri tea over the sugary tea they grew up on; they even give up on the much-relished daily diet of fish, which in Kashmir is a delicacy that is cooked rarely. The one thing they find solace in is Kashmir’s habit of eating rice.
Language, food and weather apart, the girls say, their “not so fair skin’’ sets them apart. “We are constantly humiliated by neighbours,” says Maryam, who arrived in Kashmir as a child bride 13 years ago. “They call our children Bihari or Punjabi bacche. Even we are referred to in very derogatory language.”
Maryam, who was married off to an older man whose hearing was impaired, says her husband, and those of other women like her, have no “izzat” or respect.
“The men we are married to are mostly poorest of the poor and have some form of disability, so anyway we are very low in the social structure,” she says. “Our faces give away our identity. So even a minor argument with a neighbour and our bengali roots are targeted.” Maryam’s younger sister, Rubina, was also married in Kashmir four years ago. “Her husband hardly earns a living,’’ says Maryam with a heavy sigh.
Maryam blames the poverty in her hometown of Bardhaman for her plight: the district floods often and rations are scarce, leaving families vulnerable to such exploitation. “I would have been better off married to a dark skinned Bengali than an older man I took years to relate to,’’ she adds.
Most of the women say its their children who are keeping them in Kashmir. “We have children and can’t leave them to go back,’’ says Shamima, one of the first Bengali brides to be married here. She is now a grandmother. Others say living in Kashmir is still better than landing in a “brothel somewhere.”
“I thank God that the agents at least brought us to Kashmir and did not sell us to some wrong place,” says Rafiqa.
Merjina, a widow in her late 40s, married a Kashmiri six years ago. “I did not think Kashmir is as bad compared to where we come from,’’ she says. Merjina, who had two children from her previous marriage, married her daughter to a Kashmiri too.
“We don’t get food back home,’’ she says. Her Kashmiri husband, she says, gave her gold jewelry during the wedding.
The plight of these brides goes largely unnoticed amid the valley’s political turmoil. “Most of the girls who have come to our notice were barely teenagers,” says Nayeema Mahjoor, chairperson of the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women. “If it’s happening in Kashmir, its criminal (and) we can’t allow this to happen.”
The commission, Mahjoor says, is “taking the matter seriously’’.
Thirty-five-year-old Imtiaz Ahmad Qazi married a girl from West Bengal three years ago, he says, so she would “take care of his old mother” because young Kashmiri girls “have no patience.”
After some prodding Qazi talks about his disability: “My entire left leg was broken, I have a big implant which makes walking, sitting and standing a little difficult.”
He says he doesn’t regret his decision to buy a young bride. “What choice did I have?” he asks. “With a disability and very low income, this was the easiest way of having a family.”