Canada's runaway Indian husbands and their abandoned brides
Tariq Ali speaks in Toronto this Saturday, April 30
Medical Science Centre, U of T, 1 Kings Circle
Tickets available at the Toronto Women's bookstore
73 Harbord Street. Telephone: (416) 922-8744
Apr. 23, 2005. 01:00 AM
"Runaway grooms" leave shame behind
Film tells stories of jilted Indian brides
Canadian law lets men get quick divorce
By OLIVIA WARD
The Toronto Star
In India, a man searching for a wife may think himself in paradise. In the
personals ads, stunningly beautiful medical students vie with "slim and
vivacious" PhDs, supercooks with the looks of supermodels and "very
feminine" professionals eager to give their all for their mate's happiness.
But for some hopeful husband-seekers paradise is lost before it begins. A
new breed of greedy grooms are consigning their unsuspecting brides, and
their in-laws, to a hell of shame, abuse and poverty.
They are "runaway grooms," young Indian-born expats who marry and desert
their Indian wives, stripping the family's assets and extorting ever-higher
dowry payments before obtaining a quick divorce. In Canada and other Western
countries, thousands of those men hide out comfortably, secure in the
knowledge they will never face justice.
"There are more than 10,000 cases like that, because the men know the chance
of being caught is negligible," says Ali Kazimi, an award-winning Toronto
filmmaker whose documentary Runaway Grooms was aired this week on CBC-TV's
The Passionate Eye. "They go on leading normal lives while their wives are
left behind to suffer."
Kazimi's film follows the declining fortunes of two attractive young women
in their 20s, who were duped into marriage with men who demanded thousands
of dollars, gifts and jewellery as the price of wedding them.
The first, a doe-eyed 21-year-old, was betrothed after a brief chat with her
"romantic" suitor, who travelled to New Delhi from Canada for a whirlwind
courtship arranged by a local matchmaker. Her husband arrived at the wedding
on a white horse, but left under a cloud after his family asked for an
additional $50,000 to back a "business venture."
When it was not forthcoming, the woman says, she was abused by her husband
on a brief but bitter honeymoon, then abandoned to ill treatment by her new
in-laws. Eventually, she was returned home, humiliated, to find her parents
shocked and financially devastated.
The second story was equally dire. The slender young woman's parents, a
struggling couple from northern Punjab, sold their land, exhausted their
life savings and borrowed money to pay a $15,000 dowry. But after a lavish
wedding they could ill afford, the groom demanded still more money to take
her to Canada.
Both women only learned their husbands were divorcing them after receiving
papers filed in provincial courts. Such notifications give the recipients
30-60 days to respond before the divorce is granted. The grounds for divorce
"By the time the women find out, it's too late," explains T. Sher Singh, a
Guelph lawyer who has seen cases of "marriage fraud" in Ontario. "This isn't
just a situation where a woman's heart is broken, it's planned, mischievous
criminality. When you multiply it by the numbers of people involved, you
find that thousands are affected."
One woman who contacted Singh was deserted by an Ontario man who made a
career of such extortion. "His wife discovered he'd been married five times,
and had children with three of the wives. The families coughed up the money
and he disappeared. He told each woman he'd never been married before."
In British Columbia, with a large population of Indian émigrés, the
situation is similar. One Vancouver law firm, Singh, Abrahams and Joomratty,
has an office in Punjab that offers pro bono help to families who have been
cheated by runaway grooms.
"I believe it's a stigma for Canada that Canadian men are taking advantage
of people in this horrible way," says lawyer Amandeep Singh. "But once it
happens, there isn't much the government can do. The thirst for a new life
in Canada is so strong that people who would normally be much more careful
about investigating the man their daughter marries become careless."
Men who desert Indian women often claim - as one husband told Kazimi - that
their wives had betrayed them with hidden faults, such as previous sexual
relationships, which were only admitted after the marriage. But few are ever
pursued or questioned. In India, however, growing numbers of runaway grooms
are charged with fraud and dowry extortion, and cannot return for fear of
In Canada, suggests Kazimi, there are also some legal loopholes that could
be closed. "When a man leaves his wife in India, and files an affidavit
saying that she deserted him, the courts don't examine it. They just send
out a notice with a time limit for contesting it," he says.
Lawyers say there should be closer scrutiny of desertion cases, especially
when a man files for a series of divorces.
But they add, rules could also be better defined for women who want to
challenge a prospective divorce in Canada: "Women find it difficult, if not
impossible, to get visas to enter the country. Even if they have all the
documents that show they intend to return, they are greeted with suspicion,"
According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, "there is no discrimination
on grounds of gender, race, religion or any other criterion" when granting
visas, which are done "on a case-by-case basis. It's up to applicants to
satisfy the visa officer that they are coming for a temporary purpose."
But the "vow of silence" in the Indian community about runaway grooms also
helps to ensure that the guilty men are never confronted. Women and their
parents are often too ashamed to lay charges.
However, experts say, the main cause of increasing bride desertions is the
dowry system itself: an ancient Hindu practice that has grown, rather than
diminished, in an age of "globalized greed."
"It is strange to people outside India that the dowry system still exists,"
says Kazimi. "It's been illegal since 1961, but it goes on stronger than
ever. A survey done two years ago found that it's now pervasive. It's not
only among Hindus, but Muslims and Christians too. There is a direct link
between the growth of the Indian economy, consumerism and dowry."
Indian women have become better educated and their job prospects have
increased over the last few decades, studies show. But the statistics don't
include a rise in self-worth or hope for a better life. Men, on the other
hand, set their value increasingly high as they gain education and job
status. For them, Western citizenship is the jackpot.
"Dowry was a payment for transferring the burden of a girl from family to
husband," says Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All-India Women's
With changing times, ironically, the burden has only increased. Now
marriageable women have to be demure, virginal and attractive - but also
highly educated, light-skinned, multilingual and rich. The bride of choice
is a Bollywood fantasy.
Because of the excruciating financial burden on families with daughters, sex
selection and abortion are practised by couples that can afford them, in
spite of their illegality. That has led to a drop in the female birth rate
that has been denounced by some politicians as "scandalous." In some parts
of India, there are only eight women for every 10 men.
Runaway husbands, says T. Sher Singh, are guilty of some of the most serious
crimes against women.
"Their crime can be worse than rape and it sometimes includes that, too.
They take a young woman and prevent her from ever having a decent life. She
and her family are left miserable and marginalized. It's something that
shouldn't be taken lightly."