Freedom to Choose

The authors of a report criticising a new law to tackle forced marriage deploy the worst kind of cultural relativism 

Anna McKie

In 2012, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,485 cases. Thirteen per cent of those involved victims under 15 years old, 22 per cent involved victims aged 16-17. Under a section of the Antisocial Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill, now going through the House of Lords, parents who “coerce, pressure or abuse” their children into marriage could face prison sentences.  

In November, The Times reported that two anthropologists have warned the Home Office that the law is doomed to fail women, because brides who send their relatives to jail will be rejected by their South Asian families. Their report criticised the new law for demonising other cultures. The authors, Roger Ballard, director of the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies, based in Stalybridge, near Manchester, and Fauzia Shariff, a School of African and Oriental Studies academic, called supporters of the law “ill-informed pedlars of ‘improvement'”. Their report said the new law would be widely viewed as an effort to undermine minorities’ cultural traditions, in favour of “superior” Euro-American practices. 

The authors — while not defending forced marriage (which, in a chillingly Orwellian manner, they refer to as “myopically arranged marriages” or “ill-judged familial initiatives”) clearly believe criminalisation will do more harm than good, and instead recommend policy initiatives “supporting efforts to resolve intra-familial contradictions on the basis of ‘traditional’ processes of renegotiation”-whatever they might be.

We can all be sensitive to the idea that other cultures have ways of living that may be as valuable as the “Euro-American” model — a happily and consensually arranged marriage may be at least as good an environment for children as a household of multiple divorces. But we should profoundly object to the moral relativism implied in the attack on the Bill. Forced marriage reflects a worldview in which women cannot act individually and cannot have agency over their sexual behaviour without bringing shame, and thus must be forcibly prevented from being autonomous. It reflects a culture where women do not have the freedoms accorded to men. In a Times column criticising Ballard and Shariff, David Aaronovitch wrote: “We criminalise forced marriage because, as a society, we believe it is wrong and we stand on the side of the victim.”

As a young woman in 21st-century Britain, I look back through history in horror at a time when I might have been bundled off to marry someone, perhaps much older than me, against my will, whom I did not love. Luckily for me that bleak prospect is a thing of the past. However, there are other girls my age, born in Britain like me, who may even have grown up in the same area as I did — perhaps we even attended the same school — who do not share my freedom. Surely they should be afforded the same rights as I am? Surely it is up to the British government-our government-to safeguard them?

In the UK, women fought hard for centuries to win control of their own lives, which included the right to decide whom they marry and at what age. The change in British, European and American expectations of marriage has been a force for good for women; the world is now a better — not different, better — place for women.  

When David Cameron announced the inclusion of the outlawing of forced marriage in the Bill, he said: “Forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery.” He is right. It is not British arrogance or disrespect for other cultures to make it a criminal offence; it reflects a nation respecting and promoting women’s freedom. In the case of Euro-American attitudes towards forced marriage there is no need for quotation marks around “superior”: they most certainly are. 

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