By Mohammed Shafeeq
The bust of a child-bride racket involving elderly Arabs has revived the memory of a 1991 incident when 11-year-old Ameena Begum was rescued by an airhostess from the clutches of a husband who was old enough to be her grandfather.
Hyderabad police on Wednesday claimed to have rescued 12 underaged girls and busted a major racket with the arrest of 20 accused, including eight Arabs -- five Omanis and three Qataris.
Marriages of minor girls from poor Muslim families to elderly Arabs is not new in Hyderabad. The well-organised racket involves middlemen in Hyderabad and those based in Gulf countries, who lure poor families with the promise to pull them out of poverty.
The racket continued to thrive with the connivance of the "qazis" who perform such marriages in violation of all rules.
However, it was on August 10, 1991, that this practice came into sharp focus with the rescue of child-bride Ameena by flight attendant Amrita Ahluwalia on a Hyderabad-New Delhi Indian Airlines flight.
She found the child crying inconsolably and, when queried, Ameena revealed that her parents married her off to 60-year-old Saudi national Yahya Al-Sagih.
On landing in New Delhi, Ahluwalia alerted the police, preventing the girl from being flown to the Gulf. The Saudi man was arrested. The incident led to nationwide outcry against the practice of marriages of young girls with elderly Arabs.
â€śI felt ashamed to be the one to tell the world that look, we sell our children in the name of marriage," Amrita told The Hindu in 2015
Ameena's father Badruddin, an autorickshaw driver, too was booked. Badruddin and his wife Sabera Begum defended their action saying his meagre income was not enough to feed six daughters and two sons. Many NGOs came forward with the promise to help but the poor family complained it got little assistance. Badruddin died in 1994.
Ameena, who had set up an embroidery unit with help from the Andhra Pradesh State Minorities Finance Corporation, married off two of her siblings. She married an Arabic school teacher in 2003.
Ahluwalia, a native of Haryana, wanted to adopt Ameena but this did not materialise. She, however, shifted her residence from New Delhi to Hyderabad and later set up the NGO Srishti to help women and children in distress.
â€śI feel it was god's call. I had achieved what I wanted in my life by becoming an air hostess but I now want to help those in distress. I want to reach out to all those people who need my help,â€ť Amrita told IANS in 2004
Ahluwalia, who took voluntary retirement from Indian Airlines, feels it is unfortunate that minor girls continue to be sold in the garb of marriages and not just in Hyderabad, but in almost every Indian city. She said despite the attention Ameena's case created, girls from poor families continue to be exploited in the name of marriage.
â€śThere is not much change from the time I have rescued Ameena from being sold to a person from Saudi Arabia in the name of marriage and now. Our judicial system has many loopholes and people easily get away by committing some heinous crimes. Even today, scores of children are being sold and there is no one to save them," Amrita told TNIE in 2015
Though battling cancer, Ahluwalia plans to set up a helpline at Hyderabad airport to help women in distress.
(Mohammed Shafeeq can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)