In June 2014, forced marriages were outlawed in the UK, and last week, a 34-year-old man was prosecuted and convicted, the first conviction for this crime in Britain. Asian feminists have been campaigning for this law for several decades. We were fobbed off, castigated and denounced as traitors by some foolish equal-rights campaigners for whom such struggles were frivolous diversions from the only true cause: racism.
Some Asian and white lawyers and academics also opposed legal measures and became articulate obfuscators and apologists for “cultural rights”. People in power fudged or offered alternative responses, most as tepid as cold, weak tea. Throughout the Blair years, ministers and the Attorney General argued that such a law would destabilise family relationships and community trust. Worse than that, these abuses would be buried under ever bigger piles of secrets and lies. Hogwash and humbug – and recognised as such by David Cameron, who took charge and delivered long overdue legislative measures (in contrast to all those Labour MPs who, fearful of losing “ethnic” votes, had shied away from opposing forced marriages).
The PM has also just announced that new laws will be fast-tracked in the next few weeks to protect young girls from enduring female genital mutilation (FGM) abroad. During the school holidays, countless young British schoolgirls – now protected by law at home – are taken abroad by parents to be cut. In March alone, 578 girls were seen by medical staff after they had had their clitorises excised and their vaginas sewn up. And the total number is bound to be much higher. According to the National Children’s Bureau, thousands of children go missing from school every year, and I believe a large number are victims of forced marriage or FGM. Perpetrators now know that tolerance of the intolerable has been resolutely withdrawn. Young people can also use the law and assert their autonomy.
White liberals have, for too long, closed their eyes and ears to these abuses. It’s easier that way. If you allow yourself to think about internal as well as external repression, it all becomes too complicated, too messy. After that forced-marriage case, a Brighton acquaintance who works for an independent TV company texted: “Hope you are satisfied. White people now think all Asians beat and bully their kids, that all marriages are sham. This law legitimises racism.” God save us from righteous liberalism. You can be a good, ethical anti-racist and at the same time stand up for the victims of religious and cultural oppression – but some black and Asian activists are similarly dismayed.
They should look to European history, for forced marriages were once common among whites, too. Remember Capulet’s fury when Juliet refuses to marry Paris, the husband he has chosen for her? He issues an ultimatum: “An[d] you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend, an[d] you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets.” Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have understood the old man’s position well enough. And some older Asians are still like those Elizabethans, wanting to own and control their young.
The facts make me weep. Thirteen per cent of those made to marry against their will are under 15 years old; some marriages are arranged at birth; and the custom is becoming entrenched, with both females and males being coerced. And many turn for help to the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), which is run jointly by the Foreign Office and the Home Office. (To be fair, this was set up by Labour in 2005 and has rescued victims who were coerced to marry without their consent in South Asia. But these are SOS missions not tough, effectual deterrents.)
According to the FMU, Pakistanis have, by far, the highest number of forced marriages, followed by Bangladeshis and then Indians. (I suspect forced marriages among Middle Eastern, Kurdish and Afghani immigrants are just as prevalent, but better hidden.) But as young people become more assertive, more of them is confined, caged and subjugated by their families.
Take the letter I received from a father who I’ll call Sadiq [all names have been changed]. He wrote to me after he made his daughter, Sadia, who wanted to be a singer, marry a cousin from Pakistan: “You write all this [sic] things about strict parents. You know nothing. She wanted to sing, in public. How can I show my face to my people if she is doing that? So Rahman was a good boy, my brother’s son. He made her into a good, obedient wife. Then in Pakistan, she took poison and killed herself and the baby inside her. She cannot go to paradise. I wish this daughter was not born.” These are the attitudes we have to overcome.
Young men go through their own traumas. Hadi, a second-generation Indian Muslim and a doctor, had a Hindu girlfriend. Both of their families objected to the relationship and he was made to marry a relative from India. Now he and his wife are incompatible and miserable. There is no baby and he blames her: ”I can’t touch her. She is still a virgin. I am going to get a divorce. At least she is unspoilt. But when I tell her that she cries, and says no one will want her. The woman I love is still waiting. But for how long? She defied her parents and is now living alone.”
Anecdotally, I know that a large number of such men have lovers. (At least they can, unlike the women.) I sometimes wonder, too, if the rapists in the Asian grooming gangs were forced into marriages and can only see women as sexual chattels.
The state has outlawed the marital enslavement and torture of young Britons by those whose love is distorted by cultural values. Now, as you know, I am no Tory. But on this, I grudgingly, bitterly, have to acknowledge that deliverance came from a high Tory Prime Minister. We campaigners, who grew old and lost hope, are thankful to have seen this day.Reuse content