"...every morning after a night of being brutally raped I had to serve my rapist and cook his breakfast"
-"Laila," -a victim of forced marriage.
Forced marriage is a growing problem in today’s society. Before recently, very few cases had been reported, however, due to high profile cases, such as Narina Anwar’s incredible escape from Pakistan in 2001 some action has been taken against it. The first step in combating this abuse of human rights is to understand what forced marriage is and what motives behind it. Before I begin I feel it is important to make clear that a forced marriage is different to an arranged marriage, which is an institution based on trust, and consent.
In brief, forced marriage is the practice of abducting young people, more often girls, but occasionally boys, and forcing them to marry a stranger whom they have never met before. The initial consequences of this are rape and forced servitude, which can be interpreted as a form of slavery. The practice tends to affect second-generation immigrants to a western country such as the United Kingdom, or the United States, who are from the Indian-sub-continent or the Middle East, but could potentially affect anyone. The number of reported cases in the United Kingdom appears to be growing, numbering into the thousands. Perpetrators of forced marriage are motivated either by misconceived religious beliefs or a desire to immigrate to a western country, often both. In an effort to help combat this problem, Scotland Yard has set up a special departments specifically dealing with forced marriage, rather than simply forwarding cases to the domestic violence department.
Forced marriages have been relatively common practice for centuries. At some point in history all cultures have engaged in a form of it, whether it be for political reasons (in medieval and renaissance Europe, a marriage between two families was seen as the ultimate alliance) or for purely emotional ones. However, it used to be the case that such marriages were commonplace, so much so that nobody took any notice of them, let alone worried about the people involved. Politically the world has since changed, however, it is still the case that most people expect to get married at some point, some people so desperately that they will do anything to get married; this can often lead to people marrying the wrong person.
In the west, it is generally the case that you alone have the overwhelming desire to be married, and your family, whilst they may have their own hopes, will not be involved in a big way. But in the east, especially in, but not restricted to countries that practice Islam or Hinduism as the state religion, men and women are often socially expected to get married fairly early in life (late teens to early twenties, with some extreme cases of child weddings). It is generally the case that the parents of the child or young adult will attempt to find them a suitor, in their culture this is an accepted tradition, and most people look forward to their weddings.
Forced marriages are different to the arranged marriages described above. A forced marriage generally takes place when there is an abnormal amount of social pressure put on a family to find a partner for their child. Family honour may be seen to be at stake, and to these families, honour can mean everything. There are several possible reasons for the increased pressure:
One is that the families are immigrants living in a western country such as the United Kingdom or United States. Immigrants are often very conscious, and very proud of their culture, and they generally have every right to be. Unfortunately, anomalies can arise when one family, or one community tries to embrace their culture too strongly, creating extremism. It is this extremism that creates the incredible pressure felt by the families. It is also this extremism that warps acceptable values into much harsher rules, such as the exact type of partner allowed, the place of marriage, and what is to happen to the couple after the marriage. The change is often very gradual, often over several generations, perpetrators of this kind of marriage are not necessarily cruel or thoughtless; in fact some care very deeply about their children, and hate to see them suffer. The parents merely believe that they are practising their religion correctly, and upholding family honour.
It is worth noting here that in Islam, social pressure is not considered an excuse for one’s actions. One must accept all responsibility for any acts committed.
However, there is sometimes an ulterior motive. One of the unfortunate realities of the world is that there are richer and poorer countries. People living in the poorer countries often harbour dreams of living in one of the richer ones, believing stories of the American Dream, or that London’s streets are paved with gold. It was this that lead to the mass immigration of the nineteen thirties to sixties, after which the rich country’s leaders decided that while it was beneficial to have an influx of immigrants, it would have to be controlled, otherwise they were in danger of becoming overcrowded. Governments put various checks and balances in place to insure that immigrants had a good reason to move to their county. Once of the sufficient reasons was moving to another country to live with their spouse.
This policy of letting people immigrate due to marriage has been a major contributor to the rise of forced marriage. After all, if a poor family in a country such as Pakistan wants more money, and to send their son to a country where he could make that money and send it home, all they need to do is marry him to a woman from that country, there may be few reasons why they wouldn’t consider it. Unfortunately this leads to the marriages generally being even worse, since the man may not want anything to do with the woman, other than to get to her country he will be unhappy, as will the woman who does not want to marry him. This, in addition to the fact that both husband and wife will be under immense family pressure, leads to abusive relationships, where the husband attempts to take out his anger on his wife.
Sometimes this is combined with the archaic belief that is unfortunately held by a few Muslims, that a woman is not good for anything other than serving, cooking and bearing children. This is related to the ancient values held in almost any civilisation’s past, and is not valid according to the Koran. Which states that everyone was created from a single soul, this is generally interpreted as “all are equal.”
“O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honoured of you in God's sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” -Koran 49:13
It may be only one of these reasons that causes a family to force their child into marriage, it may be a combination of them. For this reason all of them are considered problems to be dealt with. It should, however be pointed out that it is only a small minority of families that commit this, and so a sweeping solution may not be possible. For this reason it is also important to know routines and warning signs that families go through or display when planning and carrying out a forced marriage so they can be targeted and stopped individually.
The first sign is a girl or young woman between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, suddenly being taken to her home country (or the country her ancestors emigrated from), such as India or Pakistan. Often it will be portrayed as a holiday, or an emergency trip due to an ill relative. It is almost always the case that the parents will not tell their child before hand that she is either betrothed to a man in that country, or is expected to pick a man there to marry. In rare cases, such as that of Narina Anwar, the child will suspect something, but in the majority they are completely unaware of what is really happening.
Once in the country, the victim wife to be will be either completely or almost cut off from her home, occasionally able to contact friends and familyby censored letter and monitored phone calls. Exactly what happens to the girl in the foreign country changes from person to person, but generally the girl will be expected to live as a very conservative Muslim or Hindu, covering herself completely if she is allowed out, and acting as a servant and virtual slave.
Under enormous social pressure from the community, and a desire to go home the girl will often submit to a marriage. If she does not, she may be threatened with beatings and torture, or starvation, or in an unsettlingly large number of cases, death!
A pseudo-religious practice known as “honour killing” will be threatened. This is a “tradition” upheld by many extremist religious communities in both the east and the west in which a person, overwhelmingly female, will be murdered for offending or reducing a family’s honour. Sometimes this is due to the girl having sexual intercourse before marriage, or simply being intimate with a man who is not her husband, or a multitude of other minor offences. A girl will be told horror stories of girls being shot for failing to find a husband; she may even be shown a gun and told that it is the one they will use to shoot her. Almost all girls break under such pressure.
In the very rare case of a girl continuing to resist, and her family not wanting to kill her, the girl may be forced through the ceremony, sometimes literally at gunpoint, even though the Koran and many Hindu texts state that marriage must be consenting and that each partner is allowed to lay down conditions. In spite of this, the marriage is almost always consecrated, which means the rape of the unfortunate girl.
After the ceremony, the husband will often treat his new wife as a slave, forcing her to wait on him hand a foot. This can be an expression of rage on the part of the husband, who may not be a willing party in the marriage either. The family of the couple will usually decide where the couple are to live, usually arranging for a one bedroom flat to maximise the chances of the woman’s conception – the main aim of marriage. Sometimes prayers will be said, generally in the hope that a male child will be conceived.
Next there’s the Immigration, often the soul aim of the marriage. In the United Kingdom, a married couple are legally allowed to live together provided one of them is a British citizen. There are checks in place in an attempt to insure that married couples do indeed want to be together, however these checks are not foolproof, and there is at least one case of the “wife” deliberately forging documents in an attempt to tip off the authorities, and the immigration soon going ahead.
Once in the country, most people will either accept that it was “another culture’s tradition” and not worry about the fact that the wife does not necessarily wish to be with her husband. This leads to the biggest problem with combating forced marriage; the fact that it is generally not reported.
Scotland Yard has recently set up a special department that deals with forced marriage. The department has safe houses and specially trained officers, who know what to look for and how to respond. Unfortunately there is a general lack of awareness within the general public, and this is just as widespread within Asian communities. Forced marriages are commonly mistaken for arranged marriages, and therefore not reported, as people believe it is simply a cultural tradition. The police are attempting to change that, working with victims such as Narina Anwar MBE.
Unfortunately, although changes are being made in society in order to educate people and raise awareness, changes on an international level are slow. This is often due to the belief of state leaders that actively enforcing laws against this will cause protests and possibly even riots in their county. Although this belief is not entirely unfounded, it is a very difficult situation for diplomats since it is of overwhelming importance not to offend any true religious beliefs. This is another reason to educate people as to what the religions of Islam and Hinduism stand for, just as some people believe that Islam is a violent, terrorist religion (which is only true for a minute minority of extremists such as Osama Bin Ladin), and must be shown that this is not that case, diplomats must not have any misconceptions about the people or cultures they are dealing with.
Overall, although relatively rare, forced marriage appears to be a growing problem, as more and more victims come forward. Work is being done to combat it, but it is slow progress and many young men and women are still at risk of this misconceived and barbaric practice.
The Action For Children Campaign
The Holy Koran, various chapters specifically 49:13
The Yahoo! Islamic Chatroom
The statements given by Narina Anwar MBE, “Laila” and Sajida Ditta in June 2003 at the 28th session of the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery