“When I did not return to school at the age of 13, why didn’t the school authority ask any questions; when I had a baby at the age of 14, the doctors, the nurses, not even the social services people asked my mother how I got pregnant,” says 42-year-old Sameem Ali, a Labour councilor of Pakistani origin in Moss Side, Manchester.
Born to Pakistani Muslim parents, Ali was forced into marriage as soon as she hit the teens to a Pakistani cousin twice her age and whom she met on the wedding day.
In 2011, the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit recorded 1,468 instances, 78 per cent of which were females. However, the government says these figures are just the tip of the iceberg and do not reflect the full scale of the abuse as most cases go unreported. The government estimates that 5,000 to 8,000 cases of forced marriage take place in the UK every year.
In an interview with Dawn.com Dr Suhaib Hasan, secretary of the Islamic Sharia Council, in Leyton, points out the gaping “generational gap” that exists between the Pakistani parents who arrived in the country as unskilled workers in the 1950s and 1960s, and their children. He should know, as several young men and women forced into such unhappy matrimony seek his advice on divorce.
“First-generation Pakistanis remain prisoners to their traditions and have failed to integrate in the British society. They often force their children, especially their educated daughters to get married to their cousins in Pakistan, who may not be that well-educated. Very often there is no compatibility and this results in broken marriages.” Often, he said, the parents take their daughters on the pretext of a family vacation to Pakistan, take away their passport and force them in marriage.
“They never consider that consent of the woman is necessary and that it is against sharia (Islamic law) to carry out a nuptial between non-consenting couples,” pointed out Hasan.
In the multicultural Britain it is quite interesting to observe how the second and third-generation South Asian women, especially those who are more educated and economically independent are, at the one level valiantly challenging, and on the other, quietly negotiating and navigating, tradition, culture and honour.
And it is because Ali understands these undertones, she is positive the UK government’s decision to criminalise the offence of forced marriage (which is for now a civil offence) will not help but hinder the situation. It would mean the parents and relatives can be put behind bars.
She thinks the Forced Marriage Protection Order, introduced in 2008 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 is quite effective in dealing with the issue.
Through the FMPO a potential victim, friend or even the police can move the court to protect the individual. Anyone breaching the order can be jailed for up to two years.
While forcing someone to marry is not a specific criminal offence at the moment within England and Wales, criminal offences associated with and committed during the process of forcing someone into marriage can be committed (usually by parents or family members). These offences can range from threatening behaviour, to assault, kidnap, abduction, imprisonment, rape (sexual intercourse without consent) and murder. For all these, perpetrators can be prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service.
This has been the outcome of a three-month public consultation, initiated by the Home Office on the criminalisation of forced marriage concluded in March 2012 and by June the government had come up with the verdict – “I think there should be tough punishments,” said Prime Minister David Cameron.
Over more than a decade, the debate on forced marriage has morphed after going through a lifecycle of understanding that there was an issue in the first place, to clearing out myths and fallacies surrounding it and finally coming up with an agreement that it was a human rights offence. Today, it has gone even beyond that with rights groups arguing that it should be criminalised.
“For too long in this country we have thought it’s a cultural practice and we just have to run with it. We don’t. It’s a crime,” Cameron said.
Ranjit Bikhlu, director of Jeena International, a charity in the UK thinks it otherwise. She says it is the crime not the parents that the victims hate. She also thinks the law as it stands, on forced marriage is quite adequate.
“I wouldn’t have sent my mom to jail, despite her beating me blue and black and forcing me to get married,” Ali says, adding: “It’s not going to make a difference; no child will point their finger at their own mummy and daddy,” The young politician believes that if a difference can be made, it can be through “educating and raising awareness” about the issue of forced marriage through policy making, not through legislation.