FOURTEEN YEAR OLD MUSLIM CHILD BRIDE, PREGNANT, ABANDONED - NOTHING NEW IN INDIA
Zehra Fatima, 14, had been abandoned by her husband and thrown out of the house by her family. She had nothing. And she had a baby coming.
By:Raveena AulakhHYDERABAD, INDIA—Zehra Fatima was never meant to be a story.
A day before I landed in southern India to work on a story about forced child marriage among Hyderabad's impoverished Muslim community, I received an email from Jameela Nishat. Nishat heads Shaheen, an agency that helps Muslim women, and she asked if I would meet with a 14-year-old girl who had recently turned up at the shelter.
Technically, Zehra was not a child bride; she had married willingly after puberty. She didn't fit into my story, but Nishat had been helpful and I didn't want to seem ungrateful. And I was curious.
Zehra, 14, had big eyes, skin the colour of milk chocolate and dark, wavy hair. She smiled a lot, talked even more and every few minutes she would ask me to take another picture of her. She talked about Bollywood movies, the awful summers in Hyderabad.
She was like any other 14-year-old.
Except Zehra was four months pregnant — her second pregnancy in two years. She had been raped the first time. This time, she had been abandoned by her husband and thrown out of the house by her family. She had nothing. And she had a baby coming.
Zehra used to live with her parents, an older sister and a brother-in-law. Her father was a rickshaw-puller, her mother worked as domestic help.
At some point, the brother of Zehra's brother-in-lawstarted visiting during the day, bringing sweets. He was about 30, she was 11. One day, he raped her. Zehra screamed but he didn't stop. She didn't tell anyone because she was ashamed.
He raped her for weeks, until Zehra discovered she was pregnant and told her mother. In a rage, her mother took her to a doctor for an abortion.
Later, she met a man in his early 20s, fell in love and married. He moved in with Zehra and her family. She got pregnant and he soon started beating her.
About a year after the wedding, he left the house and never returned. Zehra's mother blamed her. When Zehra complained to the police that her mother had slapped her, her mother ended up in prison. The family threw her out.
Zehra told me all that — with some incredulity but mostly sadness.
Then she said something poignant: She was sad because she missed her mother and she hoped that her sister helped with the chores. Her mother, she said, worked as domestic help at five houses and always had a backache.
Just before I met Zehra, I had spent some time with Tasleem Begum, a 14-year-old who had been sold as a virgin bride by her mother to a 61-year-old man from Oman. Again and again, I had heard stories of young girls being sold to older men from the Middle East, of mothers drugging their young daughters so they would not fight when the men raped them.
And here was another teen girl, alone in the world.
That sweltering summer day in Hyderabad the world felt like one big soulless gutter.
I had tears in my eyes. For Zehra, for Tasleem and for the many other girls whose agonizing stories I heard that day.
I held Zehra's hand and asked if I could help.
Don't worry, she said, patting my hand.
"I am worried about what will happen to the baby ... but I have time to think about it," she said in Urdu peppered with Hindi. "I may give (the child) up for adoption. There isn't much I can offer."
And what about her? What would she do? Where would she go?
Zehra, who attended school only until Grade 5, had no skills. Shaheen, the agency run by Nishat, helps educate girls and Zehra said she would enrol and find part-time work as domestic help so she could be financially independent.
I'll be fine, she said. "You have my number ... you can check on me whenever you want."
A few weeks after I returned home, I called Zehra's cellphone. There was no answer. A few days later, an automated voice said: "This number no longer exists."
I phoned Nishat. Zehra's mother had come to the shelter in late August and taken her away. Nishat went to the family's house and discovered they had moved from the neighbourhood.
And just like that, Zehra, the 14-year-old who held my hand and consoled me because I couldn't do anything for her, disappeared.