Forced Marriages Dishonour Britain

The fear of singling out Islam for criticism has so far blocked the criminalisation of the abduction and rape of Muslim girls

Features Islam
Death sentence: Banoz Mahmod (right) was raped and strangeld by two of her cousins in 2006. The murder was ordered by her father (left)

If white British women were being forced to marry men they had never met, in a country they had never visited, there would be a national outcry. We would call it trafficking. But some liberals justify the practice as “cultural” when it involves Muslims and oppose making it a criminal offence.  

Meena was forced into marriage with her 30-year-old cousin when she was 18 and planning to go to university. “I think I cried for five years, every day,” she says. “My father begged me when I refused to marry him, so in the end I caved in. My mother was terrified I would bring shame to the family.” Meena, now 23 and living in a refuge for women escaping domestic violence, tells me that, at the time, she did not think she was being coerced, and believed her parents had her best interests at heart.

“I now think completely differently,” she says. “They just wanted to save face and look good to the imam and other elders. It was so I would not go to university and become ‘Westernised’. I hate them for what they did and think they should pay a price.” Meena is in favour of a law that would criminalise forced marriage “because it will make some of them think twice before they do the same to other girls and women”.

In November, a new law on forced marriage was introduced in Scotland. Its courts can now issue protection orders to those at risk, as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, in addition, if breached the Scottish orders could carry a two-year prison sentence. David Cameron has described forced marriage as “little more than slavery” and, together with his Home Secretary Theresa May, is keen to criminalise the practice (though the Lib Dem Home Office minister claims it is not on the department’s agenda).

Not all victims take Meena’s view. Many, like Razia, do not wish to see their parents in court. When she was 16, Razia was told by her mother that she was promised to the son of a family friend. “I had no idea what marriage really was, except for the fairytale notion of a wedding dress and being swept off my feet. But on my wedding night, when I was 17 years old, I was raped — I know that now — because he thought it his right to have sex with me. I ran away after six months and got help. My parents still won’t speak to me, two years later.”

Why is Razia protective of her parents after the distress she has been through? “They felt they were doing their best for me. If they thought I would be so unhappy, I don’t think they would have made me marry him.”

In the UK, forced marriage affects mainly women and girls from South Asia as well as smaller numbers from Sudan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Armenia, Somalia and the Irish traveller community.  FCO dealt with over 1,735 cases in 2010, whereas estimates from feminist organisations dealing with the issue range from 450 to 1,000 victims a year. The difficulty of collecting data is compounded by the fact that the line between an arranged marriage and a forced one is not always clear.

The debate about criminalisation began in November 2001, only weeks after 9/11. Patricia Hewitt, then Minister for Women, announced a “project” to “eliminate” forced marriages in Britain’s Asian communities. Hewitt argued that the fear of being accused of racism had stopped politicians from confronting cultural beliefs that were “unacceptable in Western societies”. She said it was time to “go beyond multiculturalism” and call for a reinforcement of essential British values. But there was resistance from some within the Muslim community who did not accept that forced marriage should be dealt with by the criminal justice system.

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, claimed that merely airing the issue risked inflaming tensions. “It is playing supremacy, saying, ‘We are better than you, we have got certain standards which are better than yours’.” He added: “This . . . nationalistic sort of debate . . . goes against the fabric of multiculturalism.”

In its report of May 2011 the Home Affairs Select Committee argued in favour of forced marriage being recognised as a specific criminal offence. Two months later the Home Office told the committee that a new offence would prove difficult to enforce and that it could be dealt with under existing offences such as kidnapping, people trafficking and abduction. However because of the differing opinions among experts, the Home Office commissioned Dr Aisha Gill of Roehampton University, an uncompromising feminist and expert on forced marriage, to produce an independent feasibility study on criminalisation.

I naively assumed that those whom Gill consulted would support the idea of criminalisation. But the result was depressingly similar to other issues relating to the treatment of Muslim women and girls: many respondents argued that bringing a criminal case would make reconciliation between the victims and their families less likely.

I asked Gill what her own view was on criminalisation. “It would make sense if nothing else was working,” she says, “but we have had about 300 civil protection orders issued since they were introduced, and we would never have seen 300 prosecutions.” Should it really be down to the victims of crime to decide whether the perpetrators are criminalised? “Lots of girls and young women say that they do not want to get their parents into trouble,” answers Gill. “Prosecutions do not allow for any reconciliation afterwards.”

Heather Harvey is a feminist who campaigns against human rights abuses of women and children, and has carried out research into forced marriage for the Foreign Office’s community liaison unit. She, too, believes that criminalisation is not the solution. “There are dangers in creating and focusing on specialist bits of legislation that disproportionately apply or seem to apply to particular parts of the community, particularly those already under siege,” she says. “They do it because they know they can emotionally manipulate their children or because they justify it in their heads as not forced but arranged. Having a criminal offence wouldn’t alter this. And it gives false hope to young women to think that by calling it a crime it would suddenly deter their parents and keep them safe.”

As Solicitor-General in the former Labour government, Vera Baird QC was largely instrumental in drafting legislation to criminalise men paying for sex with a woman who is trafficked or otherwise coerced into prostitution. Baird, however, is another feminist who is against criminalising forced marriage. “The research indicated that the victims would not come forward if they feared their parents would go to prison,” she says. “If there was evidence the other way then we would have criminalised. All we can do is go through the community and do what the research says.”

But why should we “go through the community” on the subject of forced marriage when we do not do so with other offences? Why should there be one rule for Muslim women and another for white Western women? This cultural relativism is the result of the creeping acceptance of aspects of Sharia law.

Some victims feel distressed at losing contact with their family and are willing to forgive the cruel treatment they receive. When Fawzia was told by her father that he had found a husband for her in Pakistan she was horrified. She says: “I was 20 and had a boyfriend I loved. He was Muslim but not really devout. I told my father I would not give him up, so I was beaten and told I would be sent away and would never see them again. I moved out and my mother is trying to reconcile us. If I had reported him there is no way he would ever speak to me again.”

Marai Larasi, director of Imkaan, a national charity for black and Asian victims of domestic violence, says criminalisation of forced marriage is not a priority for her organisation. “Would it prevent instances? Yes, perhaps, but how many? The priority has to be the victims and we do not have enough funding for services right now,” she says.

In the case of a family with several daughters, do we not owe it to the younger children to stop the family from enforcing marriage in the first instance? “There are parents who genuinely believe that they are doing the best for their children,” says Larasi. “They are operating under patriarchy, just as those who blame women for being raped are, but under a different framework. But it is more than the framework that is different. Women living under Muslim law, whether formally sanctioned as in Islamic states, or merely accepted or used covertly, as is increasingly the case in the UK and France, can suffer extreme forms of human rights violations.

A recent report by the Middle East Research Institute highlighted the practice in rural Pakistan of girls as young as a year old being married off by their parents to adult men. The reasons vary from so-called cultural traditions, debt settlement, exchange for land or dowry, or to settle a dispute between families. Most of these cases are not reported to the police, which many Islamic clerics justify because it avoids “dishonour” in the family. Unfortunately, in Britian cultural relativists and liberals sympathetic to some forms of Sharia law, also support the right of Islamists to police their own communities and override the rule of law.

Maryam Namazie, an Iranian feminist and spokesperson for One Law For All, which campaigns against Sharia, believes that forced marriage is one of the main problems for Muslim girls and women. “In a place like Afghanistan a majority of females are in prison for ‘moral’ crimes, including refusing to marry the man chosen by their families,” she says. “This is increasingly a problem for women and girls here in Britain, especially with the rise of Sharia courts, which validate and rubber-stamp forced marriages.”

Criminalising forced marriages won’t end the practice overnight, admits Namazie but, as other supporters of the change have argued, criminalising domestic violence did not end violence against women in the home, and drink-driving still leads to death on the road despite the penalties. “But it will be an important start in battling it and making clear what is intolerable in our society. And it will help to protect countless citizens.”

For Aisha Gill, it is vital to hear the victims. “The message does suffer if there are no prosecutions, as the perpetrators think they can get away with it. But I have a problem with stand-alone legislation that only targets certain communities.”

Therein lies the liberals’ dilemma. They don’t want to single out the Muslim community for criticism but end up supporting the patriarchs and condemning young women to a life of unhappiness and servitude. They should know better.