I met Aarifa, a Muslim girl from a Mumbai slum, two decades ago while doing my fieldwork with an NGO. I was asked to support Aarifa in her efforts to get a divorce. However, hers was not a ‘simple’ case of marital discord. Aarifa had survived multiple attempts of rape from her husband’s male relatives and yet her own family wanted her to return to her husband’s home! In order to really help her, I asked her to tell me everything about herself.
A dream marriage
Aarifa grew up in a big household with four sisters and two brothers. Her father worked in a small shop that made seat covers for automobiles. Her mother did some odd jobs but was primarily a homemaker. The family had big hopes for the tall and beautiful Aarifa getting married into a ‘good family’. Everyone in the family believed that if Aarifa married well, it will improve the prospects of her siblings, especially that of her sisters.
Soon, the family found a ‘suitable’ match for Aarifa in a boy named Aalam, who too lived in the neighbourhood slum but was from a relatively well-to-do family. Her mother took a loan of 30,000 rupees and got Aarifa married in a lavish nikah ceremony. Aarifa made a pretty bride and she departed her family home with hopes of a brighter future.
The wedding night that never was
However, fate had other plans for Aarifa. To her surprise, Aalam did not consummate the marriage on their wedding night. He came and slept next to her but did not have sex that night or any night thereafter. Aarifa was a bit upset but her troubles did not end there.
One afternoon, when Aarifa was alone at home, her father-in-law walked into her room and tried to force himself upon her. Aarifa was shocked and raised an alarm. Their home was small and cramped, so her father-in-law backed out quickly for fear of being found out by the neighbours. A disturbed Aarifa narrated the whole incident to Aalam but he did not seem perturbed.
The constant fear
Aarifa wanted to forget the sexual assault as an odd incident and carry on with her married life but to her agony many attempts followed, not only from her father-in-law, but also her husband’s brothers. But Aarifa was determined and shouted each time the men approached her. There was no way she would let the men have their way.
I do not know why Aalam was not keen on having sex with Aarifa, even though every other man in the family did. Whatever be the reason, he did not help Aarifa or work to improve his own relationship with her.
Soon, the men in the family realised that Aarifa was not going to give in easily to their demands for sex and so they chose a different ploy. They called Aarifa’s parents and made a number of complaints – about her not being able to cook, adjust with other members of the family and that she was rude, lazy and proud.
When Aarifa’s parents spoke to her, she told them about everything she had faced at her new home, since her marriage, but to her surprise, her parents told her to ‘compromise’ and stay put at her in-laws.
So Aarifa continued to live with her husband and in-laws but it was affecting her mentally and physically. She could not blink her eyes or sleep in peace for fear that someone will pounce on her at any moment and try to rape her. She could never let her guard down even for a minute felt stressed all the time.
One day she decided to end it all and return to her maternal home, crestfallen and lost. The elders in both the families still wanted a ‘compromise’ and tried to send Aarifa back but this time they could not force her to change her mind.
The long, never-ending battle
Being from a traditional Muslim community, it was a tough battle to fight. Gradually, however, her parents began supporting her. They even went to her in-laws' house to claim her ‘haq meher’ – a mandatory payment, in the form of money or possessions paid by the husband, or his family, to the bride at the time of marriage, that is legally the bride’s property.
As expected, her in-laws refused to give them the money. Finally Aarifa’s mother, approached a legal aid centre, for help with filing for a divorce. With their help, Aarifa even managed to get a police complaint registered against her in-laws for attempted rape and cruelty.
Even though these charges are non-bailable, Aalam’s family was out of jail after a mere fifteen days because they had ‘contacts’ in the police – the price Aarfia had to pay for being married to a ‘suitable’ family!
The present and the future
After coming out of jail, Aalam forced her to take back the case. His family even threatened to ‘spoil’ Aarifa’s reputation in the society. But she remained strong and determined. She also had the support and guidance of the local community, which helped her carry on with the court battle for years.
Freedom did not come easy for Aarifa but at least she was now able to sleep peacefully at night without having to worry about men in her own family trying to rape her. She finally got a divorce after eight long years.
I followed up with Aarifa after her divorce and came to know that she was finding it difficult to get married again because of the ‘ill reputation’ she now had in the community. Her husband’s family had let out that she had been ‘refused’ by her husband on the day of the marriage and that it was somehow her 'fault'. However, Aarifa has not given up hope and is trying to rebuild her life. She now works as a receptionist at a small firm and is building her capability live life on her own terms, without any fear or shame.
*(name changed). The person in the picture is a model.
Often women find themselves being controlled emotionally, physically and financially and at the receiving end of violent and abusive behaviour. Many such behaviours are promoted by our social and cultural norms. Love Matter India is helping women raise their voice against abusive behaviour. Aarifa’s story was shared by Chinmayee with Love Matters India as we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November).
Have you or a woman friend faced violence within your home or community? Write to Love Matters and share your experience. Get in touch with us on our Facebook page. If you have a specific question, please visit our discussion forum - Let’s Talk.