Malabar Muslim marriages are known for their grandeur, irrespective of the families’ financial status. An elaborate pre-nuptial ceremony or mailanchi, traditional folk song mappila paattu, and grand Malabar cuisine mark the celebrations.

In the tiny village of Nhangattiri in Thrithala panchayat of Palakkad district in northern Kerala, 21-year-old Rukia is troubled. A desperate quiet looms in her house. Her parents have been relentlessly knocking on the doors of many, seeking loans to marry Rukia off.

Despite being financially weak, Rukia worked hard and became a college graduate. While her parents try to get money for her marriage, she is preparing herself mentally for a move from her well-off village to a low-income neighbourhood in Salem in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Rukia is one of the many brides from Palakkad district who get married to men – often with fewer or no educational qualifications – in the districts of Salem, Tiruppur and Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu. These marriages have come to known as Salem marriages.

Increasing dowry demands

In northern Kerala, a centre of progressive movements, there was earlier no practice of taking dowry among Hindus. The practice was prevalent among Muslims, but it was a token amount that did not burden the girls’ families. Now, it is a statewide phenomenon. Observers attribute the social change to consumerism. Hindus have also started demanding dowry. Some young men see it as an option for funding their new enterprises.

In the narrow streets of Nhangattiri, palatial houses with the latest luxury cars in their garages juxtapose small, dilapidated mud huts with tin sheet roofs. In a village with a population of about 5,000 people, one in every three households has a family member working in the Gulf.

Prosperity and squalor coexist in many parts of northern Kerala. (Photo credit: K Rajendran)
Prosperity and squalor coexist in many parts of northern Kerala. (Photo credit: K Rajendran)

The occupations of villagers range from quarry workers and load men to government employees and owners of small commercial establishments. The women work as agricultural labourers, anganwadi assistants, sales assistants in retail shops and the like. The men who travel to the Gulf for employment work as gardeners, slaughterhouse workers, hotel staff and a few as engineers.

Remittances from the Gulf have brought about obvious changes, reflected in the houses in the village. “As the village develops fast, the dowry to be paid by the bride to the groom has also increased,” Idros, a social worker in Nhangattiri, told VillageSquare.in.

Indicative of the dowry demand is the gold trade in the state. According to veteran financial journalist George Joseph, the trade in Kerala is worth Rs 80,000 crores annually.

Gap between dreams and reality

Being a graduate, Rukia had dreamt of an educated Malayali groom. But financial constraints and the high dowry demands of local men have forced Rukia’s parents to fix her marriage with a bus driver who has not completed his school education.

“For getting a Kerala groom, my parents should be able to give at least Rs 10 lakhs as dowry,” a tearful Rukia told VillageSquare.in. “Otherwise, I should be as beautiful as Aishwarya Rai.”

PA Rahman owns a mobile repair shop. The 28-year-old graduate has been on the lookout for a suitable bride in and around his village for a long time. He was not hesitant to disclose his demands. “Bride must be capable of gifting at least Rs 10 lakhs, 50 sovereigns of gold, a new car and bear at least half of the marriage expenses,” he said.

Rahman is well aware of the law against dowry. Yet, he dreams of luxury at the cost of another family. He defends his demand, saying, “What I want is for my wife’s benefits too. Without financial stability, how can one have a happy family life?”

New breed of brokers

With a considerable number of Rahmans and Rukias, Salem marriages have increased in number, leading to a new vocation. A number of marriage brokers have sprung up to facilitate the inter-state marriages.

One such broker, Komalavalli, is a busy woman. Parents from economically poor backgrounds request her for proposals from Tamil men who seek only one-tenth of the dowry demanded by Kerala men. She is considered a reliable marriage broker in the region. She has conducted around 150 Salem marriages in the last two years.

Komalavalli is regularly in touch with the marriage brokers of Salem, exchanging details of prospective brides and grooms. She is not hesitant to reveal the economics of her brokerage. “I get Rs 25,000 from the girl’s family,” she told VillageSquare.in. “The Salem broker gets around Rs 5,000 from the groom.”

Disturbing consequences

Though Kerala is known for progressive movements and social emancipation, many social evils still prevail in many parts of the state. As per police records, dowry-related deaths increased from seven in 2015 to 24 in 2016.

The phenomenon of Salem marriages started 10 years ago, but has rapidly grown in the last five years. Though such marriages were initially confined to the Muslim community, other marginalised groups are also opting for it now. According to Idros, women from poor families are the biggest sufferers. A social worker, Suma, said, “Had all religious groups made a clarion call against dowry, situation would have been different.”

A handful of mahal mosque committees pointed out that around 200 Salem marriages had taken place in the past two years in Thrithala and Pattambi administrative blocks. Out of the 28 women VillageSquare.in spoke to, 22 revealed they led miserable lives. Among them, 12 were chronically sick and three suffered mental health ailments.

Jasmin, 30, was in Nhangattiri for her sister’s wedding, also a Salem marriage. She had married a man in Erode four years ago. The marriage marked a shift from a reasonably comfortable life to one of great strife. Illness, the discovery that her husband was already married and had a family, as well as extra-marital relationships drove Jasmin to a failed suicide attempt. “With two kids, I have no option but to live in Erode,” she told VillageSquare.in.

For Tamil men, these Salem marriages are a better bargain as they get educated wives who are economically better off than them. They too demand dowry, mostly Rs 1 lakh. Muhammed Hussain, a Salem groom who married a Malabar girl recently and received Rs 1 lakh as dowry, defends such marriages. “None of the brides migrating to Tamil Nadu are being sexually exploited,” he told VillageSquare.in. According to him, some women could not get accustomed to the socio-economic atmosphere of a different place. “It is better to advise your young men to reduce the dowry demand than to portray Salem marriages as a disastrous social evil,” he said.

Shahida Kamal, a member of the Kerala Women’s Commission, told VillageSquare.in, “For a girl in a Kerala village, not unemployment but dowry is the biggest challenge.” Kamal has decided to embark on an awareness campaign against the prevailing dowry system, especially in the context of Salem marriages.

Names have been changed to protect identities.

K Rajendran is a journalist based in Kerala.

This article first appeared on Village Square.