Asian men say no to the misery of arranged marriage

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'IF IT wasn't so tragic, it would be funny.' Mohammed Khalil, a Glasgow-born Pakistani, is not laughing.

His story is as tragic as it is complicated: five years ago, when he was 17, he met Tahira, a local Asian girl, and they fell in love. When Mohammed's parents discovered that the two teenagers were dating, and that her parents would not allow a marriage, they sent him to Pakistan and forced him into an Islamic marriage with Khatija, the daughter of a family friend.

After the wedding Mohammed returned to Britain and married Tahira in secret. When Tahira's parents found out, they sent her to Pakistan and forced her to marry a relative. Khatija arrived in Glasgow and, rejected by Mohammed, married a Scot.

'We are all 'married' to two people at once and none of us is happy,' said Mohammed. 'I have lost the only woman I have ever loved, my family has been destroyed . . . and the last I heard, Tahira was miserable.'

Shunned by relatives, Mohammed, a restaurant manager, has outraged the Asian community in Glasgow's West End by trying to have the marriage with Khatija annulled. He is one of an increasing number of Asian men who are breaking with tradition to denounce loveless unions.

His case will turn on a decision by Lord Prosser, a senior Scottish judge, who last week heard a Scots-born Pakistani, Shahid Mahmud, argue that his marriage should be declared void because his family forced him into it.

Mr Mahmud, 31, a nurse from Lanarkshire, told the Court of Session in Edinburgh - Scotland's highest civil court - how, under relentless pressure to grant his father's dying wish, he agreed last year to marry his cousin, Rahat, 29, whom he had met for just 15 minutes.

If Lord Prosser's written judgment, expected next month, goes his way, Mr Mahmud will become the first Asian man in Britain to have an arranged marriage annulled on the grounds of duress.

His solicitor, Cameron Fyfe, who is also acting for Mohammed Khalil and two other men, said Asian men had only just begun to challenge arranged marriages 'because until last year I don't think anyone realised it would be possible to end one in this way'.

Last October the Court of Session ruled that Scottish law applied to Scots residents married overseas, when it annulled an arranged marriage in Pakistan because the bride was 14, below the age of consent in Britain.

Mr Fyfe said: 'If it can be shown that an Asian man has been coerced into marriage, then, under Scots law, the marriage can be annulled because consent is required. My firm has 10 cases similar to those of Mr Mahmud and Mr Khalil. There is a whole army out there in the same position.'

Mohammed's 'surreal nightmare' began in November 1990, when Tahira's family turned down his parents' request that he marry her.

'My parents said that I should go on holiday to Pakistan to get over it,' he said. 'I went to stay with relatives near Faisalabad. Everything was fine but soon my parents started writing and telephoning saying I should get married. I said no but they insisted, saying that as the eldest son, it was my duty.

'My father got very upset when I said no and I started to think that I was being a bad Muslim. As I was about to leave, my parents arrived. They said they had come to persuade me to marry. I said I couldn't and they said 'Fine, if you don't get married, you're not going anywhere.' My relatives threatened to burn my passport. I had to leave but I had no passport, ticket or money, so eventually I agreed.'

Four days later he married Khatija. He saw her for the first time in their bedroom on the wedding night. Although he had not had sexual intercourse before and did not want to, he consummated the marriage for fear that his parents would refuse to let him leave the country if he did not.

On his return to Britain one month after the wedding, he started seeing Tahira again and in April 1991 the couple married in a register office with friends for witnesses. 'True' married life lasted just two weeks before Mohammed's parents found out that he had told the British High Commission in Islamabad not to grant Khatija a British visa.

In May he returned to Pakistan to explain to Khatija's family why he had married Tahira; but while he was away Tahira's parents sent her to marry a relative in Pakistan. She never returned.

In January this year Khatija came to stay with Mohammed's parents on a tourist visa. Fed up with his parents' efforts to encourage a reconciliation, Mohammed left home to live with his cousin. He now rarely sees his parents. Last month Khatija married a Scot in an Islamic ceremony.

He feels no bitterness towards his parents but, he says, he cannot forgive them. 'They will never be at peace, knowing what they did to one of their children.'

Many parents, he said, send their sons to Pakistan, where they can be forced to marry a friend's daughter so that she can come to live in the West.

'The pressures to conform are so strong,' said Mohammed. 'People in the street have sworn at me, accusing me of shaming my family, my community, my culture. Most men can't face that. But I won't go through with something that condemns me to living a charade.

'Part of my life has been wrecked. I'm 22 and feel like 42. I have nothing more to lose, so by breaking the conspiracy of silence I hope to help thousands who are too scared to speak out.'