When Asif Iqbal told his parents about his girlfriend in the summer of 1998, it led to much drama at his home. His parents wouldn’t talk to him for days and the arguments seemed endless. Back at his girlfriend’s house, the situation was similar.
“They simply wouldn’t get convinced,” said Iqbal. “It took us two years of perseverance before we could get married. Of course, now, [her parents] have accepted us and our love. My parents, though, are still on the fence, but that’s OK.”
The reason their parents had a hard time accepting their union is because Iqbal is Muslim while his wife is Hindu. In India, interfaith marriages are still controversial in the eyes of society. This led Iqbal along with some other interfaith couples to create a space where they could use their experiences to help out other interfaith, inter-caste, and LGBTQ couples who want to be together against all odds.
“We started Dhanak (which means ‘rainbow’) in 2005 based on our own experience of interfaith marriage,” Iqbal said. “It was certainly not easy. There was the usual convincing to do, but this made us realise that the state of interfaith couples in India is deeply worrying.”
Dhanak is a non-profit support group that promotes the right to choice in matters of marriage and relationships. It works in tandem with law enforcement authorities to protect couples at risk of harassment, oppression, threats or opposition from their families. Couples can reach out to Dhanak via the helpline desk on their website.
“When they approach us, it’s important for us to make them understand that they shouldn’t feel guilty for simply consensually loving an adult,” Iqbal said. “To instil that confidence in them, we inform our local police station and their police station too about their whereabouts under our guidance. Once they have this legal backing, they feel safe.”
The next step is usually to arrange for a safe house for such couples where they can stay until they find a new job and have enough to start a new life for themselves, away from the push and pull of their families. These safe houses spread across India have basic amenities and food from government-sponsored kitchens. Iqbal said that couples usually prefer safe houses not located in their home state, for fear their families might trace them.
In the north Indian state of Haryana, there are government safe houses in almost every district as well as strict guidelines to prevent honour killings – murders committed by family members who believe a relative has brought shame on them. This is the result of the Supreme Court’s 2018 judgement in the Shakti Vahini case, where the NGO Shakti Vahini petitioned the apex court to pass strict and specific guidelines to curb honour killing and to reaffirm the right of consenting adults to marry without any societal or extrajudicial pressure. This was a landmark moment for interfaith couples and Dhanak as an organisation, as it offers safety and shelter to couples at risk.
Dhanak also facilitates marriages under the Special Marriage Act, which allows two consenting, adult individuals with no existing spouse to solemnise their marriage through a civil contract. They, however, do not facilitate any kind of religious marriage.
To date, the organisation has helped around 5,000 couples, Iqbal said. But fighting societal prejudice is an uphill battle. Iqbal, other co-founders, and almost every member of Dhanak regularly receive threats and abuses from families.
“This one time, a family managed to track down the address of one of our safe houses and reached there with [armed men]. This is where our policy of informing the cops helped as they came to the rescue of the couple quickly.”
Iqbal hopes that more states in India start implementing the Shakti Vahini judgment guidelines that require at least one safe house in every district. “People don’t realise how serious and widespread this problem of interfaith couples running away from their families is,” he said.
“These are not one-off cases. The enormity of the issue can be gauged from the fact that only last year, more than 10,000 couples independently applied for government safe houses in Haryana.”
Haryana is just one of 28 states in India. Only recently, thanks to a petition by Dhanak with reference to the Shakti Vahini judgment, the Delhi Government established a safe house for interfaith couples. “We are the only organisation referring cases there. It’s under-utilised. Many couples don’t even know about the many safeguards under law. Love cannot be chained, it must always flourish and we must celebrate every moment of it.”
This article is written in partnership with Closeup. VICE and Closeup celebrate love and champion closeness of all forms. For similar articles, check out www.LoveForAll.info
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