Against their will

By Zubeida Mustafa

The ugly tradition of protecting honour by killing and violating women is not limited to Pakistan. Girls from Pakistan living in the UK have been forced into marriages with cousins back home to protect honour, writes Zubeida Mustafa

Five years ago 19-year-old Rukhsana Naz was strangled to death by her brother while her mother held her down by her feet. This happened in Britain, the country Naz’s parents had migrated to from Pakistan and where she had been born and bred. The murdered girl’s crime? She had “shamed her family.” First she had refused to stay in marriage to the man in Pakistan whom she had been wedded to when she was 16. Second, she had decided to return to the man she loved.

In the British court, which sentenced the two guilty parties to life imprisonment, Naz’s mother described the gruesome incident as her daughter’s kismat while her brother claimed provocation, arguing that the killing was committed in the name of ‘honour.’

It created quite a sensation in Britain. Here was a case of honour killing Pakistan style on foreign soil. But unlike what happens back home, the murderers were not allowed to go scot-free. What is more, the British Home Office set up a working group on forced marriages to look for a solution to the problem, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set up a Community Liaison Unit (CLU).

Not that forced marriages were not taking place in the Asian communities in Britain before this “horrific offence,” (to use the judge’s words from his judgment). It was the gravity of the crime that prompted the British government to sit up and take note.

This in itself was quite unprecedented. Until then the practice had been to let the minority communities devise their own solutions to problems they faced in the social, cultural and even religious context. In Britain’s politics of multiculturalism any outside intervention can be a sensitive issue and assume serious overtones.

Why should there be such a problem in the first place? Though it may seem difficult to believe, the fact is that the factors which lead to 760 honour killings a year in Pakistan, replicate themselves in the Asian communities in Britain. When they leave home for distant climes, the migrants carry with them their baggage of family honour and perceptions of sexuality, which they perceive to be a part of their socio-cultural identity. Thus Southall with its large South Asian population is in effect a mini-extension of Pakistan.

The expatriates want to marry within their own clans to strengthen family ties, protect (wrongly interpreted) religious ideals, fulfil long-standing commitments and, of course, to uphold the ubiquitous family honour which requires the controlling of female behaviour and sexuality. For many of the migrants, arranged marriages, which for centuries were the only way of entering into matrimonial alliances, are still considered the best way of choosing a life partner for their children.

The trouble begins when a young girl brought up and educated in British schools and universities actually shows that she has a mind of her own. If she is strong enough she resists the choice of a partner being forced upon her by her parents. Today cases of forced marriages are being increasingly reported as there is growing awareness among the youth that choice in marriage is their right, which they want to assert.

For some it has also emerged as a feminist issue. When the Home Office minister responsible for the working group had declared that the community leaders must resolve the problem themselves, activists were quick to point out that these leaders are mostly male, conservative, orthodox or even fundamentalist. Women are invisible and silenced. “Whose voice should be heard?” they asked. “Will the state pursue a policy of appeasement of men and community leaders for the sake of ‘good community and race relations’?” (Remember the Shahbano case in India?)

The government has had to heed the women’s voice, albeit discreetly. It is now recognized that this right to choice cannot be compromised. “Multicultural sensitivity is not an excuse for moral blindness” the report A Choice by Right observes. But it has been left to the women who are being denied this right to make the first move to seek help. When they do approach for help they receive full support.

The pressure on young girls to marry against their choice is exercised in a subtle way. Most of them are not independent-minded enough to resist. They are not schooled in defiance and most of them have never lived away from home. The report of the working group documents a number of the problem cases. What methods of duress are employed?

“My mum was saying — you’ve got to marry him or your dad will divorce me.”

“My parents said that I could go to university but only if I agreed to marry a cousin from back home once I’d graduated.”

“I can’t wait to finish school really. But if I don’t stay on for sixth form I’ll have to get married.”

“‘A’ (female) was forced by her parents to marry her cousin ‘B’ (male) from their village back home. When they first told her about the idea she made it clear that this is not what she wanted but they insisted that she should do as she was told. ‘A’ did not feel that she could go against her parents’ wishes — she didn’t want to hurt them, despite her friends urging her to take a stand. She married her cousin, but was desperately unhappy and after two months she attempted suicide.”

It is emotional blackmail at its worst termed “loving manipulation” by many of the victims. But there have also been reports of extreme cases of threatening behaviour, abduction, imprisonment, physical violence, rape and even murder, as was the fate of Rukhsana Naz. Invariably, marriage is linked with family honour and the whole extended family network gets involved.

The problem has acquired international dimensions because very often girls are taken out of the country to be forced into marriage against their will. Some are deceived into travelling to their home country for a “holiday”, to “visit a dying grandmother” or so on, only to find themselves confronted with a qazi in their ancestral village. The victims’ response has been varied. Most of them initially submit to the family’s wishes but after enduring an abusive relationship for several years they seek help. Some with guts try to escape the marriage by running away from home. But this is no solution as they end up living in isolation, fear and unhappiness. The constant fear, which haunts them, is described succinctly by a runaway who says, “I’m scared that one day I will open the door and they’ll have found me.”

Now that the government has involved itself in the matter, it is actively seeking solutions, which are directed towards broad social approaches. The working group’s report defines “guiding principles” which seek to enhance sensitivity, awareness, and commitment while strengthening support groups and legal services for victims of forced marriages. An awareness campaign has also been under way. The CLU has built a network of contacts with women shelters, counselling organizations and women’s groups in the UK and abroad.

A flyer issued by the CLU Forced Marriages Abroad gives comprehensive guidelines to girls who fear being forced into marriage against their wish when away from Britain. The practical tips to intending travellers include:

* Make sure you take with you the address and contact numbers of the British High Commission in the country you are visiting and some money in case you need to make a telephone call.

* It will be really helpful if you can leave the following details with the Unit (name, passport number, etc and details of a trusted friend in the UK and addresses of the relatives you will be visiting abroad). It holds out the assurance: “If you do not want to go through a forced marriage, we will do everything we can to help you.” It also offers the advice: “You have the right to legal protection. If someone is forcing you into a marriage they may be in breach of the law in the UK and other countries. In order to protect yourself think carefully before you decide to go.”

Has all this helped in any way? “I suppose we will have to wait and see,” said Fawzia Samad, the Case Manager at CLU. She also told me that in 2002, 250 cases of forced marriages were reported in Britain and out of these 70 per cent were from Pakistan (mostly Azad Kashmir). It would be worth finding out what the figures are for 2003 when the year draws to a close.

Source: Dawn