Asian women forced to wed

Michael Prestage reports on moves to help girls who face abduction for refusing a match
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The Independent Online
THE Foreign Office has reissued guidelines to Asian girls and young women who fear they might be taken abroad and forced into marriage.

The move, which consists of a leaflet and a media campaign, comes as a couple are due to appear in court next week after being arrested at Manchester Airport and charged with falsely imprisoning a 17-year-old girl. They are alleged to have administered a "noxious substance".

Last year the Foreign Office dealt with 200 cases involving girls and young women who had been taken to Pakistan for weddings arranged by their parents against their wishes.

One field worker at an Asian women's refuge in Keighley, West Yorkshire, believes enforced and arranged marriages could be faced by nearly half of young women in the Asian community.

In 1996 Shabir Hussain was convicted of murdering his sister-in-law Tasleen Begum, who escaped an arranged marriage only to be shunned by members of the Asian community in Bradford. Hussain knocked her down in his car and reversed over her body three times.

Shamshad Hussain, a co-ordinator with an Asian women's project in Keighley, recently dealt with a case where a 19- year-old fled from Manchester Airport and found sanctuary in a women's refuge after discovering her ticket to Pakistan was one-way.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We can only look at cases that are brought to our attention. How many women suffer in silence we don't know. It is a very sensitive issue."

Hannana Siddiqui, a case worker with Southall Black Sisters in London, an organisation which helps Asian women experiencing violence and abuse, said the new leaflet is not clear about where women suspicious they are being taken abroad for marriage should go for help.

She said there was a lack of understanding among many social services departments. In one case, she said, her association took a London council to court because it refused to intervene when a 14-year-old was threatened with being taken abroad.

Although the case was won, council officials placed the girl with a conservative Asian family who persuaded her to return home. The girl has since been taken to Bangladesh and her whereabouts is unknown.

Ms Siddiqui said: "Too often the issue is not of an arranged marriage, but a forced marriage. Families want to marry their daughters off. Once the father has given his word, family pride is at stake. There is always an element of coercion."

In extreme cases, women had been abducted or even murdered, she said. But pressure typically ranged from emotional blackmail to threats of violence and beatings.

Shaheen Khan (not her real name), 29, from Bradford, was subjected to efforts for 10 years to marry her to a man she had been betrothed to at 16.

"I don't think my case was exceptional," she said. "In many ways I was lucky because although I was threatened with beatings my father never actually hit me. There is a constant pressure on you to conform and as a teenager it is hard to resist. My mother would say 'all this worry will kill me, why are you doing this to me?' I was shunned by neighbours and friends and wasn't allowed out. My parents threatened to stop me studying. I had been brought up to do what my parents say. Refusing was seen as bringing shame on the family."

Running away was a difficult option, she said. "Asian girls live a sheltered life and are badly prepared for being on their own. To flee meant cutting myself off from my family and the community. I had a white boyfriend who gave me help and support, but that only made matters worse in my family's eyes.

"As a child I saw my mother suffer beatings from my father without complaint. I knew that was not a relationship I could tolerate. I think my mother is secretly proud I rebelled."

The Foreign Office is sensitive to criticism that it has not acted quickly or effectively enough on tackling the issue. A spokesman denied that the Government viewed forced marriages as simply part of Asian culture.

Sekina Khan, 40, and Mohammed Bashir, 45, both of Northside Road, Bradford, will appear before Manchester city magistrates next week charged with false imprisonment and administering a noxious substance to a person.

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