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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Social challenges

By M Yusuf Khan

The Milli Gazette Online

If you look at the Muslim matrimonial column in the newspapers you will notice the gradual change that has taken place. About three decades ago not many Muslims believed in advertising for matrimonial purposes. This was considered the last resort. The 'respectable families' were least inclined towards this method of finding a match. They were reluctant to admit even if the alliance was arranged through the newspaper. But all that has changed now. More and more Muslims from wide social strata are taking the help of newspapers and marriage bureaus. No stigma is attached to it anymore and rightly so.

Circumstances have changed. So have the customs and practices. In search of greener pastures people have moved and settled down in strange cities. They still have emotional bonds with their roots but it is impossible for them to find a match for their wards in those places. The traditional way of arranging marriages are no longer possible in their new surroundings. It is therefore not surprising that the matrimonial columns are getting longer by the week. Also the demand for 'groom' has increased many fold as compared to the demand for brides. The other perceptible change is that now the girls are highly qualified and better employed. From the advertisements it is evident that there is dearth of 'eligible' boys in the community. Ironically, higher education and good jobs are no guarantors for getting a suitable match. This is essentially an urban phenomenon but the villages have their own problems.

Educated Muslim parents now aspire to give their daughters much more than just the basic education which prepared them to 'write letters to their near and dear ones and calculate the household expenses', which at one time seemed to be the sole objective of educating the girl child in the Muslim community. With the higher education the prospects of a career become better and it gives the girl a chance to prove herself and stand on her own feet. Economic independence of a girl has acquired a new significance in view of the high rate of marriages failing and the girls, ultimately bearing the brunt of it. The concerned parents of the girls are worried and would not like to see their daughters stranded. One way to avoid such hardship is to equip them with modern education. However despicable the divorce and its consequences may be, it is a reality that cannot be pushed under the carpet. So it is better to be practical and be prepared for any eventuality. In case of a family compulsion an educated girl would be able to supplement the family income. And surely an educated girl can look after herself better in such circumstances. It must be admitted that education whether for girls or boys is not just for their gainful employment. It is to make them better human beings. Can we deprive the girls of higher education for any reason? It would be unthinkable in any civil society.
It is not just that only city parents face difficulty in finding suitable boys. The malaise has spread to the rural areas too. However the reasons differ. There, it is the dowry demands that have become a real stumbling block. At times parents have to sell their property to pay for the wedding and dowry of their daughter. A certain pomp and show is considered necessary to uphold the honour of the family even if it means economic ruination of the family. Dowry is an old curse among the Muslims in India. However its burden is becoming unbearable with the availability of a vast array of goods that can be demanded. Greed plays a major role in these transactions but it also boosts the social status of the families, however temporarily. Sometimes it is demanded shamelessly and sometimes broad hints are dropped. Here is a real life example. Asked if there is any particular demand, the boy's emissary said, ' There is no demand as such but it is a well-known family and people should feel that they have married their boy in a family of some status.' The girl's father had the better sense to drop the matter then and there.

Groaning under the yoke of dowry and extravagant marriages, a reform movement was started in a dozen of adjoining Muslim majority villages in the Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh some years ago. With the hard work of a handful of dedicated people it met with great success after an initial lackadaisical response. The marriage party hitherto comprising hundreds came down to a modest figure of 12 to 15. The feast became a modest affair too. The girls were given eleven sets of clothes compared to 101 sets in the past. A few inexpensive household items were given as dowry. No longer would the girls remain unmarried because there was not enough money in the family. People took notice of the transformation in a society that was not willing to change initially. Syed Hamid, the former vice chancellor of Aligarh University, a great reformer himself wrote about it in Qaumi Awaz. Then something horrible happened. Some affluent villagers broke the rules. They paid dowry through the back door. Austerity was thrown to the winds. It once again became ' do as you please'. The old curse has come back with a vengeance. The pioneer of the movement Dr. Mahmud Khan would have been a very sad man today had he been alive to see the present state of affairs.

There is urgent need to introduce such reforms wherever Muslims live. Agreed, in villages things can be enforced through their Panchayat, which is not possible in the cities where people live insulated life. Sometime back one had come across a report that thousands of Muslims girls in Hyderabad were getting past the marriageable age because their parents could not afford a hefty dowry. While these problems stare starkly in our faces Muslim boys and girls no longer consider it out of bounds to settle for inter faith marriages. Should this be treated as a problem? Or should the Muslims accept these abrasions as inevitable fall out of the changing times?

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