Tariq lives alone, but you’d never know that if you visited his flat. All around his home are all the signs of a happy marriage, despite his wife living a few miles away. It’s a deception she willingly goes along with, however. She is a lesbian, he is gay, and neither can bear to tell their families – opting instead for the pretence of life as a straight couple through a marriage of convenience, which Tariq admits is a “farce” but might stop his wife from being killed by her parents.
“It’s all about the little details to make it look like she’s living with me,” he says, explaining how they convince their parents they live together thanks to “her belongings scattered around my flat, her books on the coffee table, having her favourite food in the cupboard, anniversary cards saying how much we love each other on the mantelpiece”.
Tariq and his wife are both from south Asian origin, and believe it would be impossible – and dangerous – for them to reveal their true sexuality to their families due to cultural pressures. Hundreds of others just like them are seeking fellow gay partners of the opposite sex for sham marriages to escape the pressure from their demanding relations.
The UK’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) has reported dealing with 80 cases of forced marriage involving LGBT individuals since they began recording the statistic four years ago. But because many marriages of convenience are mutually willing, it appears these official cases may only be the tip of the iceberg.
A UK-based website, Saathinight.com, saw 104 posts advertising for Marriages of Convenience (MOC) in the past month alone. One typical post reads: “MOC: I’m 30 gay male looking for lesbian girl in West Midlands, to elleviate [sic] pressure to get married.”
Hundreds of similar posts exist on other websites including peperonity.com, gayleslove.com and in the classified sections of publications aimed at the UK’s ethnic minority communities.
Tris Reid-Smith, editor of Gay Star News, said many LGBT organisations are themselves unaware of the issue because of the necessary secrecy surrounding such arrangements. “If you’re having an MOC you won’t be out, and you won’t be drawing attention to it. You’d only know this went on if it was you or a very close friend.”
Tariq (not his real name), a 32-year old solicitor, held his MOC wedding in 2008. “I personally consider this a forced marriage,” he says. “The fact is we both had to get married, full stop. Maybe we had a choice who to, but there was no choice about the marriage.
“We have to live far away enough from both our families for them not to turn up at our flat at short notice. My wife really lives with her real partner about 20 minutes away from me, and I don’t have a boyfriend at the moment, so I live alone. But if anyone turns up I call her, and she’s here.”
That hasn’t stopped awkward questions, however, and their lies have had to become more elaborate. “My family wanted to know why we weren’t having children. So I copied NHS logos off the internet, and created fake medical letters to prove I had a serious medical problem.
“They showed them to a doctor friend of theirs. He saw straight through it and rang me. I told him under doctor/patient confidentiality that I was gay, and why I’d done it. So he told my parents they were legitimate and they believed it. If we didn’t do this, we’d both be disowned and my wife’s life would be in danger.”
Polly Harrar, founder of the Sharan Project charity which helps British Asian people forced into marriage, has recently worked with other people considering MOCs as a way to “safeguard their sanity, and sometimes their lives”. The clients her charity comes into contact with have often “grown up knowing their lives were in danger if they were homosexual”, she says.
“It’s a knowledge you have from day one – that people in your community talk about how gay people deserve violence or death, hearing about what happened to others,” says Ms Harrar. “So, though it’s not an explicit threat made to your life by one or two people, you know what will happen if you don’t hide your sexuality through an MOC... One female client was considering having one because she worried that if people found out she was a lesbian, she would be subjected to a corrective rape to turn her straight.
“She wanted to be with her girlfriend, without her life being in danger. The very fact that people are being forced to do this, and it’s not illegal, reflects a real breach of human rights occurring in the UK. But we don’t talk about it.”
The legal definition of a forced marriage is one that is conducted “without the valid consent of one or both parties and where duress is a factor”. Legal experts say the intense pressure may not constitute the Home Office definition of a “forced marriage”, leaving the victims with no legal or police protection.
Rahana Nargis, a solicitor specialising in forced marriage cases at law firm Goodman Ray, said: “A Forced Marriage Protection Order has to be taken out on a specific person, or a few people, and then they have to breach it for forced marriage to be a crime... You can’t take it out on an entire community, even if someone does fear their life is in danger and they are being forced into marriage because of that.”
Bans on homosexuality: the law in south Asia
Bangladesh: Homosexual activity is punishable with anything from 10 years to life imprisonment. Gay people are not allowed to serve openly in the military and there are no anti-discrimination laws.
Sri Lanka: All homosexual activity is illegal and there are no laws concerning gender identity, meaning no “third gender” is recognised.
Pakistan: Same-sex activities can result in anything from two years to life in jail, but a “third gender” is officially protected from discrimination by the Supreme Court.
India: Despite overturning a colonial ban on homosexuality in 2009, a ban was re-enacted four years later, punishing homosexual activity with up to life in jail.