x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Women's consent vital for equality

The buying of wives by foreign men in India is shocking - doubly so given the complicity of religious leaders

The worst misdemeanours against women are those cloaked in seeming respectability and cultural acceptance.

This week we learned foreign men are arriving in Hyderabad, India, and "buying" wives for a month. Even more shockingly, imams are complicit and conducting the wedding ceremony, with a one-month divorce built in.

This area of India suffers from poverty, and such visitors exploit the crushingly poor circumstances to pressure families into giving - let me correct that, selling - their daughters into such marriages.

The sorry tale gets worse. One of the Hyderabadi girls says openly that she was forced by her parents to engage and consummate such a marriage in return for the large dowry from the "groom", worth US$1,770 (Dh6,500), to save them from poverty.

At the time, she said she didn't realise her parents couldn't force her into such an arrangement. However, her instinct led her to reject the marriage and she has subsequently brought legal charges against her parents. They are in hiding.

Some wrongheaded people might blame her for the prosecution, claiming she is bringing shame on the family with proceedings against her own parents. But in my view it is her parents, the "groom" and the imam who are wrong. A daughter's best protectors should be her parents. The role of a religious authority is to defend justice.

I cannot imagine the horror of living in a place where poverty is so pervasive that selling a daughter is an option a parent could consider. Their blame in this is forced by the hand of circumstance. It is the groom who has triggered the horror for everyone.

The rights and wrongs of such marriages, sex tourism or parental pimping in the face of poverty need separate investigation.

What should be applauded is that this girl is standing up for what is right and for other women who are being forced into such relationships.

There is one fundamental issue that must be addressed: the woman's consent. From liberal to conservative societies, ensuring that a woman has granted her consent is the underpinning of any society that claims to offer justice and equality to women.

The fact that such an issue arises in a Muslim context I find even more repugnant, because Islam upholds the twin principles of no compulsion in religion and that in marriage a woman must give her consent freely.

In addition, the imam must take specific care to ensure she is not forced into any marriage by her parents. What a shocking betrayal of religious authority and parental duty that women's rights are trodden-upon roughshod in this fashion!

And how disgusting that the natural rights that Muslim women like me campaign for are violated so effortlessly under the guise of culture and religion.

The idea of a woman's consent to a relationship is rarely discussed, but is absolutely crucial. And when it comes to anything related to sexuality, it is thought to be a shame upon women to raise such terrible issues. But injustice is more shameful.

Women are not the belongings of their male relatives, yet so many cultural norms still act as though they are. Examples like forced marriage, child brides and swaraa in Pakistan - where daughters are traded for debts - all overlook the fact that a woman's consent is absolutely necessary and incontestable.

To refuse the role of a woman's consent is to treat her as an object, a commodity to be bought, sold and controlled.

 

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk