I occasionally see articles about Gulf Arab sex tourism in India. Wealthy Sunni GCC nationals abuse and mock religion by entering into contractual Islamic marriages with impoverished young Indian women and girls with the intention of divorcing them after a few weeks of sexually exploiting and abusing them. It is a disgusting practice that is not at all uncommon, but is not discussed very much in the Gulf. It should be widely condemned. Just like wealthy Western men who go to places like Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Latin American countries, and elsewhere for sex tourism, wealthy Gulf Arab men engage in this form of exploitation, and some choose to give this grotesque practice an Islamic twist by deeming it “halal” or permissible according to religious mores with a dubious marriage contract. Though quite frankly, plenty don’t care and don’t bother and go on sex tours in East Africa, Thailand, and other nearby countries just to visit prostitutes in the same way that Western men do.

It is usually this issue of supposedly religiously condoned sex tourism that I read about. But I actually wanted to hash out another issue.

I was thinking about the marriages of GCC national men (of various ethnic backgrounds, not only Arab) and Indian women (from various Indian regions, but most often Hyderabadi Muslim background). I had students and friends who were the children of these marriages. I am not sure how very common this phenomenon is today (gonna be 2013 TOMORROW), but gauging from the number of young women I met who had Indian mothers, at some point (80s and 90s) this was extremely common, and certainly it still happens contemporarily.

I knew these girls well, and on occasion even met their mothers. Let me explain a bit about the social context of these marriages.

There are Gulf Arab men who wish to marry but who cannot economically afford to gain the acceptance of a proposal from a Gulf Arab family. Some of the governments in these countries actually gives a substantial financial marriage gift to the groom when two Gulf Arabs marry. The monetary gift is supposed to help the couple start out, and is also an incentive to get Gulf men to marry Gulf women, since men who marry foreigners do not get the money. As far as I know, this gift is only available for first marriages. But the marriage stipend isn’t enough for some families to consent to a union between their daughter and someone else. Good family/tribal status, a good education, a decent job, social privilege, and money to provide housing to a bride, and a nice car are often major considerations. Many men just don’t have these things. They aren’t rich by Gulf standards, but they are wealthy by the standards of underprivileged families in India, so these men seek brides from there. A second reason is this: Suppose a Gulf Arab man wants to engage in polygyny. It is hard to find a modern, educated, never married before (virgin) Gulf Arab woman to agree to this. So he goes to India to find someone who he believes will be more docile and whose family will be accepting of the situation. I’d say most of these GCC-national + Indian bride marriages involve polygyny. The docility issue is tied to the third reason. Gulf Arab women have not yet gained full social equality with their male counterparts, but they are educated and modern minded. They are much more empowered than their grandmothers. Many Gulf men find this threatening. They seek an Indian bride who is supposedly more submissive. If he mistreated a Gulf Arab woman, her family would give him problems and encourage her to divorce him. An Indian woman will be completely alone with no support system and nowhere to turn, so she will be completely dependent on her husband. (Reminds me of white American men who seek Filipina or other Asian brides because they say white women have lost their femininity and they want a supposedly submissive and petite Asian woman to give them back massages and treat them like kings. Barf.)

Anyway, you have these various factors at play. I had a friend once who was of Ajami origin and a UAE national. The Ajami, known locally as the Ayaimi, are Sunnis from the South of Iran, and this community has significant numbers in Dubai. They speak a dialect of Farsi (called Ayaimi) and many claim to have mixed Arab and Persian heritage. In the UAE, they are not considered to be Arabs, though, but a type of Iranians. My friend was the daughter of his father’s first wife, who was also an Ayaimi woman. Her father also married a Hyderabadi woman. My friend joked that her dad loved Hyderabadi biryani so much that he just had to have a Hyderabadi wife. He then married a Persian (Farsi speaking, and not a speaker of the Ayaimi dialect) who was younger than my friend. Her family was not very wealthy, and I wondered how her dad could support all these wives and the children that came from these marriages. This all sounds very sensational. I want to make it clear that most UAE nationals I knew were NOT in polygynous marriages nor were they children of such families. Polygyny is the exception and not the rule there. But unlike in other Muslim countries where polygyny is considered permissible, but socially frowned upon, and for the most part rare, in the UAE (and other GCC states) polygyny among locals is pretty much completely socially condoned without question. It is a sign of wealth and virility for men, and considered a Sunnah that is desirable to practice. Anyway, it is complex, but since I told you this sensational (yet completely true) anecdote about my friend’s family situation, I just felt I should give a bit more background on what perceptions of polygny are like in the UAE and generally in the Gulf because the stereotype outside of the Gulf is that every man has four wives when this is far from true, and most have only one. But yep, so this man, my friend’s father…he claims to have married a Hyderabadi woman for the biryani. Um, yeah.

So, these marriages take place. They are real marriages. There is no intention to divorce. The wives are kept as normal wives would be. Except for one thing. You see, in Gulf social hierarchies, Indian people are considered to be low. They are not all thought of as laborers—I don’t just mean in that way. I mean that Gulf Arabs consider them to be inherently inferior due to their Indianness. According to locals, Indians are dark skinned and unattractive. They are poor. They have bad manners. There are a lot of stereotypes about them. It is complex, though. Many Gulf Arabs watch Hindi movies and love Bollywood stars. I had many students with crushes on Bollywood heroes, whose faces they used as screen savers on their laptops. They enjoy Indian food and speak pidgin Hindi…some can even speak Hindi fairly well. But the prejudice is there. (It’s hard to explain…maybe it’s like how in the US gringos love Mexican restaurants but often have terrible terrible stereotypes about Mexican people, not really an exact parallel, but just to try to explain the layers of racism.) So what happens when a Gulf man marries an Indian woman and brings her into his extended family structure? She is there alone. She has no power or support in that family. She is from a stigmatized ethnic group. Although there are many, many well-educated and professional Indian people in the Gulf and especially in Dubai, she is not one of them. She will no doubt be from a very poor Indian family and may not have much of an education—Indians of a “good family” do not send their daughters off to the Gulf to get married. These are very poor families who will take advantage of the dowry (mehr) given by the Arab man, the fact that no dowry (jahez) will be required by him as may have been from an Indian groom, and by the fact that their daughter will be “well settled” in a Gulf home rather than remain in their poor family in India. The dynamics of this type of marriage are very unfair from the start, and involve exploitation and economic coercion.

I knew some half Indian girls who were very open about being mixed. They were into Indian culture. When I say Indian culture, I mean that same sort of essentialized Indian culture that many of us India-Pakistan-Bangladesh affiliated people know in the US; Bollywood and Hindi oriented—this isn’t the vastness of cultures within India, but these are this is the essentialized face of Indianness in diasporic contexts. The girls don’t know much about Hyderabad, per se. Some travelled to India often and knew their Indian grandparents, but some did not. Their grandparents sometimes lived in very poor conditions in a completely different world than the relatively privileged worlds they inhabited in the comparatively well developed UAE. But they like to wear bangles and sometimes special 22k Indian gold earrings or necklaces. They show off that they know Hindi. They don’t feel shy about being part Indian. Once I had the students give presentations on a person who they considered to be their hero. A half-Indian student gave the presentation on her maternal grandfather who lived in Hyderabad. She showed the class many pictures of him and her mother’s Indian family and the family’s home there.

Then there were other girls who you could tell were uncomfortable by their mixed identities. And it was an insult for someone to say “You have an Indian mother.” So no wonder they felt this way. I also knew a girl in Oman whose father was of Zanzibari Omani origin and who told everyone that her mom was an Omani Arab, but everyone told me behind her back that her mother was an Indian. She hid the fact because she was ashamed of it and the judgement it brought. I was totally shocked that anyone would lie about the ethnicity of their mother, but once I understood how things worked there a little better, I came to see the complexity she faced when it came to her identity.

When it comes to marriage, it is hard for multiracial half-Indian Gulf nationals. The prejudices come into play. Pure Arab families want to marry those with supposed racial purity and with good and documented tribal lineages. (I have very high suspicions that given the intertwined histories of the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, East Africa, and Coastal West India that Gulf nationals are actually a lot more multiracial than they think they are!) Cousins are preferred. Mixed multiracial people are undesirable, even if they are cousins. I knew half-Indians who married other half-Indians. I also knew a lot of half Indians who somehow ended up marrying into Al Baloosh families. You see, the Baloosh are a non-Arab ethnic group who have roots in Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan. Within Balochistan and within Pakistan, Baloch are culturally more on the Iranian-tribesman side and not desi, culturally speaking. In the Gulf, Balooshis are looked at as Indian-ish. Some like to play up the Iranian-ness, since that is more prestigious than Indianness. But when I would press for a person’s family’s place of origin, it was more often in Pakistani Balochistan and not Iran, which within the Gulf is seen as making them more Indian/desi. Some Balooshis embrace this Indian thing as well, and are very into Indian culture and speak Hindi and so on. It’s funny how that works for diasporic communities….so strange because in the sub-continent, a Baloch tribesman in Pakistan and a random Indian person would be looked at as two extremely different identities, but in the Gulf, they are lumped together as desi and Indian. Yes, even if from Pakistan—the average Gulf national people don’t know much about Pakistan and partition or Muslim majority regions in the subcontinent or two nation theory or any such thing, and some of them see Pakistanis as sort of another type of Indian.  Another twist on this is that there are a large number of Afro-Baloch in the UAE and Oman. They are descendants of mercenaries, traders, and slaves of African or partial African descent in Pakistan and Iran, especially in the Makran region. They are among the main black ethnic groups in the Gulf. They are lower on the social ladder, especially when it comes to intermarriage. So it is these groups who marry more easily with people who are part Arab and part Indian. Not to mention that for whatever reason, a lot of Balooshi men also go to Hyderabad for brides, it is not just Arabs who do it. So I often met people who were half Hyderabadi Indian and half Baloch/Balooshi. (Sorry for the confusing nomenclature, but Baloch people are called Balooshis in the Gulf.)

I should also say that I knew of Indian-Arab matches that were love marriages, not just this situation of Gulf men going to poor families in India for brides. I knew a half Keralite half Gulf Arab girl whose parents had met while working together, and a half-Sindhi (Pakistani Muslim) half Gulf Arab girl whose parents had met because they grew up in the same neighborhood in Dubai. This girl exuded Sindhi pride and showed off that she could speak Urdu and Sindhi very well. I also knew Gulf national women who had married Indian or Pakistani men. So it’s not all tales of exploitation. But yep. The exploitation and economic coercion factor is there whenever one analyzes marriages where a GCC national has flown to India for a bride.

Anyway, I often found myself thinking about the social dynamics of these marriages and the children produced from such unions. I was hesitant to talk about such issues directly, and gauged a lot simply from observation. It was something I would have liked to ask about, but wouldn’t that be silly, patronizing, and possibly insulting if I asked someone to explain their identity to me in this context. These issues are unspoken. These half-Indian girls and women I knew were just regular people in my life, and I didn’t want to put them on the spot. In the social settings of the GGC, these girls are thought of as half-Indian, and they are part of Gulf society. They aren’t really part of Indian society within India, where I guess they would be viewed as “half Arab.” So I haven’t given much thought to it from that angle, per se, but I wonder how they are looked upon when they visit India or when they interact with the very large sections of diverse but often socially compartmentalized Indian communities in the Gulf. I knew women who had entered into this type of marriage. I knew their children. I wonder how they would feel if they read what I wrote here and of my assessment of their familial situations. Their mothers did not appear to be pitiable and downtrodden people. They just lived their lives. We didn’t speak of prejudices or of the social issues. But I was keenly aware of the dynamics of their situations, as they must have also been.