Forced marriage: Give me shelter

Forced marriage is on the rise within some of Britain's most isolated and radicalised communities - and the girls involved can be as young as 13. Terri Judd reports from the first refuge for victims of a distressing practice
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The Independent Online

The house is plain - a nondescript, net-curtained dwelling among a row of equally mundane homes in a street identical to millions of others across Britain. Every day old ladies burdened with shopping bags and school children swinging satchels pass it without a glance. Yet the location of the house is a closely guarded secret. Its occupants are sworn to silence, its visitors forced to sign a strict confidentiality agreement. To break it would be to risk serious injury, even death, for those hidden inside.

Such near-paranoid caution might suggest its occupants are secret agents or violent criminals. In fact its inhabitants are teenage girls, sporting slogan T-shirts, reading fashion magazines and watching soap operas; all punishable crimes in the eyes of their strict Asian fathers. They have fled an increasingly recognised problem in Britain today - the practice of forcing young women into marriage with threats of violence, even death, if they disobey. Often naïve youngsters from protective communities, all the girls in the refuge were desperate enough to come here with nothing more than a small bundle of personal items, knowing they might never see their families - or return to their communities - again.

One of the last things 20-year-old Leyla Bashir's father said to her was, "If you ever ran away I would find you and I would kill you. I would slit your throat. I wouldn't want anyone to think you got away with it. I don't care if I go to jail." After years of violent abuse, she believed him. Yet, three days later she walked out with a handful of clothes and cash.

Last year a bounty hunter, hired by the family of one girl, discovered the refuge. As he banged loudly on the front door, the charity managed to smuggle her out the back. Another girl was grabbed off the street. No one from the house has seen her since, powerless to do anything but inform the police.

The threat of violence contrasts sharply with the cosy atmosphere inside the refuge. Only a small sign next to the pay phone in the entrance hall reminds the visitor of the perils of revealing its location.

In the tiny living room, the furnishings are basic, reminiscent of student accommodation, but comfortable. The shelves are packed with childish soft toys and teen books. A small fake Christmas tree, covered in gold baubles, sits forgotten among them while a single photo frame on the mantle piece is empty - a subtle reminder that these girls were effectively wrenched from their families by circumstance.

Shanaz Begum, 18, proudly explained that the small, spotless kitchen was her domain. As most of the girls have always relied on their mother's cooking, she has taken to providing the nightly meal which they share together in front of the television. Despite her youth, Shanaz is protective of the newcomers, remembering her own first days in the refuge.

"I had never lived away from home so, of course, I was frightened but everyone was very supportive," she explained. Soon she will have to move on, having almost completed the maximum of a year the girls are allowed to live in the house. During their stay, they are taught basic living skills from learning to drive to finding homes for themselves. They are given counselling, take courses and search for work. The charity is determined to empower them rather than make them dependent, and the lack of facilities means they must move on as soon as they can stand on their own two feet.

The first refuge for victims of forced marriage in this country, Ashiana Network's safe house has only four beds. Clearly, it could do with more.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Forced Marriage Unit hears of about 250 new cases of forced marriage every year - some of girls as young as 13. Ashiana dealt with 86 new cases in 2005. This, they believe, is just the tip of the iceberg - they only hear from those who have had the courage to walk away. Many more become victims of kidnap, marital incarceration, rape and abuse, or even the now all-too-familiar "honour killing".

Shaminder Ubhi, the charity's director, also runs awareness-raising outreach projects in schools, and she has heard endless tales of 14-year-olds describing their fear of being sent away by their families. Suicide rates among young Asian women, Ubhi points out, are more than three times the national average.

These school visits have also laid bare a worrying new problem. Instead of the tradition of forced marriage dying off with the older generation it appears that some young men - isolated and radicalised in the current climate - are returning to such outmoded customs. A recent survey of 500 young British Asians - Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims - provided a frightening insight into such thinking. One in 10, the BBC Asian Network survey revealed, believed that honour killings could be justified in cases where the family had been treated with disrespect.

"Some of the attitudes of the young men, 17- and 18-year-olds, is that girls should do what they are told," explains Ubhi. "They think, 'Once I get married, my wife is my property.' It is still a challenge to educate the younger generation, both boys and girls. There is a lot of work to be done."

The Ashiana staff - a third of whom are Muslims - point out that the Koran is clear that both men and women must be willing in a marriage. The ceremony itself offers up three opportunities to air any concerns, yet a small minority have chosen to confuse and abuse ancient traditions while calling it religion.

The problem, though, is far from confined to the south-Asian communities. While 56 per cent of their cases are Pakistani or Bangladeshi with a further 12 per cent Indian, there are Turkish, Algerian and Iranian girls too.

When Ashiana first opened in 1989, bricks were put through the windows and Asian councillors threatened to have its grants withdrawn. The charity has worked hard to open negotiations with some communities, even to get them to acknowledge that there is a problem when they are simply seen as meddling women determined to break up families. They insist they have nothing against arranged marriages as long as both parties are consenting.

"Because of an increase in Islamophobia, a lot of communities are beginning to become more insular and that has started to change the family dynamics. We are beginning to see signs of women who may have been exposed to more freedom now having a lot more restrictions placed on them," she explained.

Ubhi insists that considerable progress has been made over the past few years and laws are in place to tackle the problem, though she believes they need to be strengthened. Police stations and social services teams now have guidelines. "The problem is that these guidelines often sit on someone's shelf and don't get read," she explains.

Scotland Yard is taking the problem f increasingly seriously, reopening murder cases to check whether they involved honour killings and investigating claims of forced marriages.

Only three months ago, the brother and cousin of Samaira Nazir, 25, were jailed for life after murdering her because they disapproved of the man she wanted to marry. They repeatedly knifed her in a "frenzied attack". "More than 60 per cent of cases involve Muslim families, particularly Pakistani Muslim families, yet there is no faith foundation for it. A forced marriage in Islam is no marriage at all. The community has a responsibility. I hear dialogue from victims but I don't hear a great deal from Muslim men," says Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Service director for London West who was closely involved in the case.

Yet recently Commander Steve Allen, head of the Metropolitan police violent crime directorate, said the decision to drop proposed legislation to make forced marriages illegal - for fear of being culturally insensitive and stigmatising communities - had sent the wrong message out that such methods were condoned.

"We need political and faith leaders from within these communities to stand up and utterly reject these practices," he said.

Ubhi believes the solution rests in more funding for refuges, counselling as well as education and raising awareness. In addition to finding safe houses where these women can build their confidence and learn to fend for themselves, there is also an outreach service for women in the community. While they find places for victims with other charities - or within their own domestic violence refuge - they insist the ideal situation is to place them in dedicated homes with others who understand their unique situation.

"Working with these women has been an eye-opener," says Ubhi. "They really appreciate that little bit of help, they are so very grateful."

Yasmin's story

Sitting in a room crammed with people speaking Urdu, Yasmin Akthar suddenly realised she had not been brought to Pakistan for her cousin's wedding but for her own. As the holy man hung Koranic verses round her neck, the startled 17-year-old Londoner sat silently as relatives she'd never met clasped her hands, offering sweets and congratulations.

"They told everyone before they told me. My dad came in and said, 'If you don't get married we can kill you, nobody will ever know.' I believed him."

Her elder sister, pregnant at 18 after her own arranged marriage a year earlier, dismissed Yasmin's fears, telling her that it would sort her life out. Her pleas to the groom, her step-cousin, also fell on deaf ears. The following day the pair were wed. Three times, as is traditional, she was asked whether she was willing. Three times, she agreed in a compliant trance. "I didn't eat for the whole day. I was really panicked, scared. It was quite a big wedding," she explains.

Yasmin's parents and siblings disappeared back to England and she was left with her new family. For two-and-a-half months she hid in her room. The rows with her new husband became increasingly violent as she refused to consummate the marriage. But he was "kind" and did not force her, unlike so many others.

Finally, when she capitulated and agreed to sponsor her husband's trip to the UK, Yasmin was allowed to return home to prepare the way for his arrival.

Yasmin's childhood had not been a happy one. Unable to bear sons, her mother had killed herself when Yasmin was just five. Her step-mother had little time for the girls when she had sons herself. "If we girls came home late from school, even 10 minutes, they would say you went to see boys and hit us. Dad came home with sweets for the boys, we didn't get any," she recalls.

Returning to the UK a married woman, she had been promised far more freedom - the chance to study - but it failed to materialise. "I was just stuck in the house. I used to love going to work because it was the only way I could get away from home."

Then one day - as the family waited for her husband to get permission to come to the UK - her father offered to take her shopping in the West End, a treat she had enjoyed only once before. But instead of spending the afternoon picking out dresses, she found herself in a queue at the Pakistani embassy. She looked down at the papers her father had shoved into her hand; they were her passport and a visa application for her own return to Pakistan.

With just £20 in her pocket she walked out of the embassy and got on the first bus with nowhere to go. Eventually, exhausted, she turned up at a police station. Today, three months later, living in the refuge, she is studying maths and physics in the hope of taking up social work. She does not think she will ever marry.

She misses her younger sisters most but knows that it would be too dangerous to contact them.

Despite the obvious pain of the loss, she explained: "Leaving was the best moment." And smiling for the first time, she added, "I thought: 'I am free'."

Rahima's story

Dressed in her best sari, her face made-up beyond recognition, Rahima Begum would sit staring at the floor silently when suitors visited. One by one her family and prospective in-laws would leave the room until she was left alone with her potential husband, still frozen in silence.

"I would look like I was getting married, lipstick and everything. I felt like a dolly. I felt I was on show with everyone looking at me. I am quite shy. I would just look at the ground. I would be shaking, my heart beating, so nervous I would not look at the guy."

Then the phone calls would follow inquiring whether she had accepted. As her Bangladeshi-born father had to tell yet another family that his daughter refused, he warned her angrily she would give him a second heart attack. A quietly spoken young woman, used to her controlling father, Rahima spent her days knitting with her mother at home. She had little freedom.

"Mum was the quiet one. She lived her life as a housewife. But I just didn't want a life like mum's. I wanted to be happy, find someone I actually loved and enjoyed being with. Mum said, 'Look you are going to have to get married one day. It is for your own happiness'."

From the moment her elder sister was married off, the now 19-year-old knew she would be next.

Her father scoured the country for men of suitable background, education and wealth before simply informing her to be ready for a meeting. Quietly she defied him each time and endured weeks of fury.

Then a neighbour in Birmingham offered himself up as a suitor, endearing himself to the family with a multitude of gifts and favours.

"I thought he had a good heart and that is what I like in someone," she says. "I agreed to the wedding. I felt I had no choice. My family are my life. I thought I have to do this for my family. Deep down I love my mum and dad."

But she hated the idea that an arranged marriage was "based on looks alone" - a five-minute meeting before the wedding. So, behind her parents' backs, she agreed to get to know him.

Rahima soon realised that the man she was supposed to marry had a nasty temper, and he became more aggressive with each meeting. One day he attacked her violently, trying to tear off her clothes as she screamed and cried. Rahima managed to get away but in the ensuing days he began to stalk her, threatening to throw acid in her face if she called off the wedding. When she told her family, she received little sympathy. "My dad said you have put us in shame. He blamed me. He said just leave. I don't want anything to do with you."

She fled to a park where she sat for two hours, blaming herself for everything.

"I didn't know there was help out there. I went to a police station and they were so helpful."

Now she lives in a refuge, ostracised by her family, whose pictures she stares at regularly. At night she cannot sleep, thinking of them, yearning to go home. She just hopes she will find someone she can love and marry. Yet, even now, she would seek her father's approval.

"If I did like him I would want him to meet my parents. I couldn't go myself, though. I would send him alone."

Shanaz's story

Shanaz Begum's childhood was a relatively happy one. Her parents were not overly strict and she enjoyed quite a bit of freedom. But as she grew into a teenager, it was the youngest of her brothers - a man who had developed a deeply religious streak - who became demanding.

"I didn't blame him. I can see there is a lot of corruption out there for youngsters. I was no angel. I had started mixing with boys as well as girls. I am quite a bubbly person and I like to mix with everyone," she explains.

Her brother started becoming controlling, abusive and violent. Her mother and father were increasingly helpless. "My parents tried to intervene. But he was the man of the house despite my father and elder brothers. When he beat me they would try and get him off me but in the process they would get hurt and the neighbours would call the police. That made me feel bad."

Then last year, her father died. Instead of bringing the family closer together, as she had hoped, her position now became untenable. "My brother said, 'Get ready to get married.' I couldn't say anything. He wanted me to marry his friend. I said no and there was another big argument. He would have forced me. I knew he would be violent."

While her family were asleep she packed her bags and telephoned a boy she had known since childhood. They had not met for eight months but he agreed to come and pick her up and take her to a refuge.

As she crept out her mother awoke briefly. Knowing it might be the last time she saw her, Shanaz could say nothing.

"I packed some clothes and toiletries. I could not say goodbye. I was afraid if anyone woke up, they would stop me." Now she lives in secret, afraid to contact her family. Once she saw her brothers in the street but slipped away unnoticed. "Obviously leaving after 18 years is difficult but it was something I had to do. I want to go back, but I can't."

Today she is training to become a counsellor for people with drug and alcohol problems and hopes to join the medical profession. "You do think about your family a lot. You are on your own now. You have to be independent. There is no one there to look after you apart from yourself."

She no longer wears the hijab but insists that she has lost none of her Muslim faith.

"Sometimes I am out and I think, 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing; I should be at home'," she says. "Then I remember. I am too young to marry but want to later. I am not against arranged marriages but I want a love marriage. I want to know the type of person he is before I marry him so I know whether I would be able to love him."

Names have been changed. More details can be found at www.ashiana.org.uk

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