Joan Smith: Children do not belong to their parents

A man is not entitled to exercise patriarchal values, regardless of the best interests of the child
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The Independent Online

When a 12-year-old girl from the Western Isles turned up in Pakistan three months ago, declaring that she had left Scotland of her own free will to live with her father and sister in Lahore, it seemed an open-and-shut case.

Misbah Rana, whose disappearance had prompted a police investigation amid claims that she was destined for an arranged marriage, appeared before the media and confirmed she was delighted to be in Pakistan. Misbah certainly looked happy, and speculation in the British press that she had been abducted was denounced in some quarters as evidence of racist assumptions or Islamophobia.

One correspondent to a Sunday newspaper even chided the publication for using the name the girl was known by in Scotland, Molly Campbell. "Whatever the rights and wrongs of the custody case, is it not time we all got used to calling Misbah by her real name?" he asked. But what is the girl's "real" name? This question goes to the heart of the case, which took an unexpected turn yesterday when the high court in Lahore ruled that she should be returned to her mother, Louise Campbell, in Scotland. The girl's father, Sajad Ahmed Rana, has been given seven days to hand her over to staff at the British High Commission, and a final decision on custody will be made by a court in Scotland.

Mr Rana immediately expressed outrage and said he was considering an appeal. He told journalists his daughter was devastated and burst into tears when she heard the court's ruling. Yet the judge's decision is both brave and correct, based on an acknowledgement that Mr Rana and the girl's elder sister Tahmina broke the law when they secretly organised her flight from Scotland without the permission of Ms Campbell, who had been awarded interim custody. And while claims about race and religion have confused commentators, the case actually turns on another issue, which is whether a man is entitled to exercise classic patriarchal values, regardless of the best interests of a child.

It is an issue which transcends ethnicity, as we can see from the stunts carried out in this country by militant fathers' rights campaigners. Like Mr Rana, they have been prepared to place themselves outside the law, scaling bridges and a balcony at Buckingham Palace in attempts to draw attention to their grievances; expensive changes have been made to security arrangements at Westminster after campaigners threw a condom filled with purple powder at the Labour front bench in the House of Commons. Attracting a degree of public sympathy in the first instance, their antics - which have included pelting the then education secretary, Ruth Kelly, with eggs - eventually started to damage their causeas Matt O'Connor, founder of Fathers4Justice, admitted earlier this year.

The notion of parents having "rights" in relation to children seems to me questionable, an attempt to turn back the clock to a time when sons and daughters were treated as their fathers' property. While any system is bound to have imperfections, the legal framework in this country places a high priority on the best interests of children when a relationship breaks down, often recognising the importance of shared custody. Some men seem to regard this as an infringement of their rights, occasionally with deadly consequences.

There has been a spate of harrowing murders and murder-suicides recently, carried out by men who have responded with extreme violence when their marriages broke down, including a father who set fire to his house in Accrington, killing himself, his wife and four daughters. A British man is currently in custody in Greece after jumping from a hotel balcony in Crete with his children after a row with his wife; the little girl survived, but the boy died from his injuries.

These are extreme cases, more often than not premeditated actions by men who have assumed the right of life and death over their families. Like militant fathers' rights campaigners, they seem to regard their children as extensions of themselves, working on the assumption that their desires and interests are identical. Mature parents know better, and are aware of the danger of putting even subtle pressure on children to say what they believe their father or mother wants to hear.

This is the problem each time Misbah/Molly appears at a press conference, talking about how much she wants to remain with her father in Pakistan. The difference in wealth between her parents is painfully apparent, and it would be surprising if a child of 12 were not excited by the novelty of living in comfortable circumstances in a different continent - and by finding herself the centre of so much attention. But it is clear that Mr Rana has encouraged her to think of herself as a Pakistani girl, who wears the hijab and uses a Pakistani name, and that is as much a denial of her identity as insisting that she is wholly European.

As the confusion over her name suggests, Molly/Misbah is the child of two cultures, British and Pakistani. She is too young to understand the perils of trying to belong wholly to one at the expense of the other, which is a guaranteed route to an identity crisis when she is older.

This seems to me blindingly obvious, and I don't know why so many commentators have taken Mr Rana's claims about what is best for his daughter at face value. A father who is prepared to parade a 12-year-old girl before the world's press, ruthlessly using her in a sordid battle with her mother, is hardly behaving like a reasonable parent.

It is also worth recalling that the decision of the court might have been very different, had it not been for Mr Rana's intransigence. Just under two weeks ago, a compromise proposal, based on shared custody, collapsed in court because his lawyer insisted the girl should be allowed to see her mother only in Pakistan and should not be permitted to return to Scotland for at least two years. Ms Campbell, who could not raise sufficient funds to travel to Lahore for yesterday's verdict, welcomed the judge's decision and confirmed that Misbah/Molly will have a say in the final decision about where she will live.

The message sent by this case has nothing to do with Islamophobia, and everything to do with observing the rule of law. When relations between husband and wife break down as badly as they have in this instance, and parents end up living in different continents, decisions about what is best for the children are always going to be tricky. They require sensitivity, and Mr Rana's decision to take the law into his own hands was as ill-advised as it was selfish. What the courts and the family need to do now is help this girl reconcile her two identities - and that means accepting that Misbah Rana and Molly Campbell are one and the same person.