A Middle-East love story seeks a happy ending with NCW help

FP
Hashna Kareem left her home in Muscat on December 9 last year for love. Now, sitting alone and pregnant in a women's shelter run by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in Delhi, on the eve of the day the world celebrates love, she has little to look forward to in the near future.

"Valentine's Day is just another day in the countdown," says the 23-year-old, who has sought asylum from the NCW against what she fears could be an "honour killing" by her family. The man she wants to get married to, Joney Joseph, is on the run in India, and her family has pulled out all the stops to break them, including accusing her of having stolen money and jewellery, and levelling kidnapping charges against Joney and his family.

Hashna has to appear in a Kerala court on Friday in response to a habeas corpus petition filed by her parents, but the chartered accountancy student has no money to travel.

Two days ago, Joney left her in the NCW's custody after the couple ran out of all options. They haven't been in touch since then, as neither uses a mobile for fear of leaving a trail that their families might pick up.

Hashna met Joney (29) on Facebook. He was then employed at a spa in Kuwait. Within months, she was ready to leave home, she says, as much to be with Joney as to get away from the stifling atmosphere at her home.

"My parents had forced me to take up a job but I had no control over the money I earned because all of that went into buying gold for my dowry. My parents are rich, but in Muslim families like ours, the value of the dowry is linked to family prestige. But the last straw was when they tried to marry me off to a man I did not like," says Kareem.

A day after she flew down to Bangalore, she and Joseph met on December 10 in Madikeri, Karnataka. The same day they approached the local registrar to get their marriage registered under the Special Marriage Act, as Joseph is a Christian.

However, before the mandatory one-month notice period essential before a court marriage had elapsed, they began to be hounded. In her petition to the NCW, Kareem has written that on December 12, around 15 people claiming to ber relatives came to Madikeri. However, she said, they were not her relatives but goons — "some of them claimed to be policemen from Karnataka" — who tried to forcefully take her away while all the way saying they would kill Joseph.

Kareem's family also lodged a kidnapping case in Kerala as well as one in the Middle-East, accusing her of having stolen money and the family gold.

Kareem claims that hounded by hired thugs, they have been living on the run, spending nights in train compartments and cheap hotels and changing locations "like hunted animals". They had to even sell off their mobile phones and laptops for money.

"I had Rs 30,000 in my account and some 2-3 gm gold. We sold that as well. I wrote to the Kerala Women's Commission, chief justice of the Kerala High Court, Human Rights Commission, top cops, chief secretary and many others but nothing worked. Then I went and gave a dying declaration to the Palakkad collector threatening suicide. He called up the panchayat pradhan of Paynnur where Joney's parents stay. The pradhan asked me to go back to my parents as they had created too much nuisance. That is something I will never do. I can't take their insults and after all this they will probably kill me," Kareem says with an air of quiet determination.

Her lawyer Naijalkumar who is helping her with the NCW petition says she is seeking three things from the commission right now — medical attention, to pay for her trip to Kerala along with an NCW official and also a commitment for asylum in the future if she requires it.

NCW chairperson Mamta Sharma says the fare is not a problem. "I am not sure if there is a provision for somebody accompanying her to Kerala. I have asked the official concerned to check. I will get her medical check-up done tomorrow," she says.

Kareem is determined to see the battle through, as much for her love for Joseph as for her sense of responsibility towards the people who have suffered for her. "Joney's parents have already spent 14 days in jail, nothing more should happen to them. That is my first priority," Kareem says.

She has no doubts as far as Joseph goes. "I sit and think all day but never for once do I have any doubt that he will be back. He told me he will fight this out. After all that we have been through, if he had to leave me, he would have done so long back," she says calmly.

Memories of her own family often cloud her mind. "It's my brother's birthday today," is the first thing she says as she meets The Indian Express.

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