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Sameem Ali with former England Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Here, Brown asks Ali about her favourtie parts from her biography "Belonging." – Photo courtesy Sameem Ali
Sameem Ali with former England Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Here, Brown asks Ali about her favourtie parts from her biography "Belonging." – Photo courtesy Sameem Ali

“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.

“Victims, continue to want a relationship with their parents and do not wish them to put them behind bars,” agrees Barrister Ayesha Hasan, who has dealt with several forced marriage cases. Not supportive of criminalising the offence, she says: “Many families have been stuck in a time warp” unable to see how the world around them has changed.

And Ali thinks like the victims of female genital mutilation, the victims of forced marriage will also become “invisible” and the issue will remain, she says. “Forced marriage does not happen overnight and it won’t end overnight. Putting it in a box is not the solution,” she emphasises.

She is willing to do all she can to make a difference and spread awareness about the issue. “Even if it means coming to Pakistan and telling my story to families who force their children to marry,” she says, in all seriousness. “I would love to come to Pakistan and start the campaign in schools in Pakistan because we have to tackle the root cause. I think if we educate people in Pakistan then we have solved half of the problem.”

Ali’s story is truly horrifying.

Born in Walsall, she was just six months old when she was put in a children’s home. She spent the first seven years of her life, which she recalls were “happy times” as a Christian.

Her mother had gone back to Pakistan, taking her five children with her after her husband was diagnosed with a mental disorder. Ali was left in the care of her father because her travel documents were not in place. “My father could not take care of me and therefore I was put in a home.”

Seven years later, her mother returned to England and wanted her back home.

“I was different from the rest of my siblings. My mother often said I wasn’t normal. I asked too many questions and was very outspoken. I didn’t understand the culture, the religion or the food. I was treated worse than a servant and beaten up if I didn’t do the house chores properly,” Ali recalled.

The beatings never stopped even as she grew up and sometimes they were so bad, she’d even bleed. “That’s when I started to retaliate and answer back. I began to inflict harm on myself as I couldn’t tell anyone and just internalised my pain.”

Interestingly, she was going to school all this time and the school administration never picked up this young girl’s problems or her scars both visible and otherwise.

At the age of 13, she was taken to Pakistan “on a holiday” but six weeks later she was married off.

Ali cannot remember much about the man she was married to, but was told by her mother she could only return to UK if she got pregnant. She believes she was married off and was made pregnant to strengthen her husband’s case for immigration.

“I returned to England seven-months pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy at the age of 14.”

She was 18, her son Azmier four, and “prayed every day” the abuse on her and her son would stop but it never did.

She also never went back to school after she returned to England because her mother didn't let her.

“My so-called husband did not come to this country I ran away from home as soon as I was asked to bring him to the UK at aged 17. I’ve never seen him again,” she says. She, however, went to a mosque to get a divorce and the cleric there told Ali she “wasn't married in the eyes of Islam” and told her to “live my life as best as I could”.

She ran off to Manchester with her son and started working in an immigration centre doing secretarial work to support herself and her son. “I was very happy and I’d say I was finally at peace because I wasn’t being hit.”

Had it not been for his son, Ali says, she would have taken her life. “I had attempted suicide a few times before he was born as the abuse was so intense. I just wanted to die but he saved my life and he made me live,” she speaks fondly of her only son.