The insidious tradition of forced marriage has become widespread in the UK. Sensitivity towards different cultures and traditions has exacerbated this inhumane custom, with government ministers at first hesitant to interfere in cultural practices they may not understand.
But now the tide has turned; forced marriage became a criminal offence last year. Yet despite the fact that the Forced Marriage Unit dealt with more than 1,200 cases in 2014, only one person has been prosecuted under the new law.
The Government and a number of women’s rights organisations have joined forces to grapple with the problem. The summer holiday period acts as a test bed for this approach, with girls reportedly at particular risk of being taken overseas when there is less chance of their absence from school or college being noticed.
Although forced marriages are not confined to the Muslim community, statistics show that the victims of the practice are most likely to be Muslim women. Forced marriage is a cultural legacy based on ignorance and has no roots in Islam. Islam is not inherently patriarchal, but the religion has been conflated with cultural practices that have curtailed the rights of women.
So the question is whether criminalising forced marriage has acted as a deterrent, or have potential victims simply been ushered into silence?
How many, despite their unhappiness at a forced match, will want to sever ties with their families by pursuing a conviction? How many would want to see their families criminalised for following a tradition?
There is already overwhelming anecdotal evidence that many young women are hugely afraid of causing dissension within the family. The Forced Marriage Unit says official statistics represent the “tip of the iceberg”, and a 2013 survey by the Ashiana Network found that 19 out of 20 women questioned said that if forced marriages were a criminal offence, they would not inform the authorities because they would not want their parents prosecuted.
Cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness. However, forced marriage is a deeply entrenched cultural practice and will not come to an end overnight. The Government and campaigners must respond to the challenge with equanimity, because it involves kinship ties and cultures where the authority of the family is overarching. There may be repercussions where victims are ostracised by their families – something which can be very traumatic with far reaching consequences – perpetuating the problem.
Education is the single factor that could end this horrid custom. Not only do Muslim women need to be educated about their rights, but religious and community leaders must challenge these deep-rooted, indigenous cultural traditions within Muslim communities.
The Government has done the right thing to criminalise a destructive tradition, but its efforts should not just be confined to criminalising the marriages; a change in attitudes and beliefs is required – a move from paradigms that are cultural, to those that are based on the teachings of Islam.