Mary Dejevsky: What on earth were we doing performing this 'rescue act'?

This case is less about forced marriage than personal fulfilment
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The Independent Online

There is something about the case of Humayra Abedin, the trainee GP from Bangladesh, that concerns me. Dr Abedin has been presented as the victim of parents who wanted to force her into an arranged marriage. She was saved from that unenviable fate, it appears, with the help of a British court order, issued under the 2007 Forced Marriage Act.

You can call me hard-hearted, ill-informed, ageist, un-progressive, and you probably will call me all of these. But I am just not convinced that Dr Abedin is quite the poster-child for the benefits of the law that campaigners against enforced marriage are claiming.

Consider this. A British graduate goes to the United States for further study. She stays on and decides to join a Mormon commune. Her family, upset by her choice and fearful that they will never see her again, lure her back to the UK on the false pretext that her father is dying. Once here, she is confined to the family house, but heroically resists all attempts to submit to a process of de-programming.

Meanwhile her friends in the US launch a campaign in her support and convince a judge to order her return on the grounds that she has a right, under the US Constitution, to the pursuit of happiness. The US order makes its way through the British courts until a sympathetic appeal judge orders the woman freed to follow her heart.

There is loud rejoicing and cries of victory. Only the woman's immediate family and their friends are disconsolate: it seems to them that a foreign power has strong-armed its alien value-system into their lives. Rather than reconcile themselves to the reality – that their educated adult daughter has chosen a different way – they see the unwarranted intrusion of a stronger, richer country into their lives and blame it for breaking up their family.

Britain and other former colonial countries have to be particularly careful how they use their power vis-à-vis former colonies, where a sense of post-imperial grievance is never far below the surface. But they need to be doubly careful when, as in this case, the individual concerned is not a citizen. You can argue forever about the universality of human rights and individual freedoms, but there are difficult questions about the obligations of a state – if any – towards those who reside there as citizens of another country.

This is the same question that was raised by the presence of British citizens and British residents at Guantanamo Bay. The UK Government – rightly in my view – drew a distinction between the two groups and set about securing the freedom of British passport-holders first. It makes a mockery of the whole concept of citizenship if a government protects citizens and non-citizens equally.

In Dr Abedin's case, the British government seemed to accept that there was no particular reason why a Bangladeshi court should respect a British court order taken out on behalf of one of their citizens. It all seems to have been a bit of an experiment. And perhaps it was not the court order that made a difference. Maybe the Bangladeshi court simply recognised that justice was best served by acknowledging that a 33-year-old woman doctor was old enough and educated enough to know her own mind.

This is why it seems to me that the case of Dr Abedin is much more about the pursuit of personal fulfilment than it is about opposing forced marriage. The belief that an order from a British court, taken out under the Forced Marriage Act, might have had a decisive effect in Bangladesh, however, muddies already cloudy waters.

It could give false hope to non-UK nationals living in Britain who are threatened with enforced marriage in their home countries. It could also persuade recent arrivals here that British citizenship is an unnecessary (and expensive) luxury. As residents, they could argue, they already enjoy sufficient protection.

But the worst aspect of this exceptional case is that it distracts from the prime purpose of the Forced Marriage Act, which was to protect mainly young, sometimes very young, British girls from the cruelty of a cultural system they were never part of. It was to give girls legal recourse if they were taken out of school prematurely, sent on holidays that turned into "surprise" weddings, or essentially traded for a groom's entry visa.

Unfortunately, these are not lessons that either parents or daughters will easily draw from the Abedin case, which seems a classic example of possessive parents wanting – rather late in the day – to hang on to their wayward daughter.