Shamim Chowdhury: Our complacency has led to atrocities

To dismiss honour killings as a sad consequence of a cultural clash is to wash our hands of responsibility

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Suicide rates among Asian women aged between 16 and 24 are three times the national average, according to the findings of a recent Metropolitan Police survey. The key contributory factor to this anomaly has been cited as the prevalence of forced marriages within certain immigrant communities.

Suicide rates among Asian women aged between 16 and 24 are three times the national average, according to the findings of a recent Metropolitan Police survey. The key contributory factor to this anomaly has been cited as the prevalence of forced marriages within certain immigrant communities.

The Met revealed at a conference earlier this week that it had received reports of almost 500 cases of women being coerced into marrying against their will over the last two years in London alone. It says forced marriages are one of the major causes of so-called "honour" crimes, in which victims are falsely imprisoned, assaulted or murdered - often by their closest relatives - because they are deemed to have shamed their family by refusing to marry a partner chosen for them.

Now the Met is calling for forced marriage to be made a specific criminal offence so that prosecutions can be made easier. Though the proposal has been a long time coming, it must be welcomed. For far too long, the shameful aberration that is honour-linked violence has been allowed to go unchallenged, with the plight of victims being dismissed by mainstream society as a domestic matter tied to alien cultural and religious practices.

Proponents of multiculturalism and political correctness have skirted the issue for years, fearing that any action taken against the perpetrators of such crimes may be deemed disrespectful, insensitive and racist. This complacency has resulted in atrocities being repeatedly carried out on women who remain ignored and unprotected.

If multiculturalism is to be interpreted as turning a blind eye on the unacceptable, then something has gone seriously wrong. For surely there can be no justification for aggression or murder, regardless of the diktats of any tradition? Anti-hunt groups claim the fact that fox hunting is steeped in history and tradition does not detract from the reality of its barbarism. Similarly, to dismiss forced marriages and honour killings as a sad consequence of a culture clash is to wash our hands of all responsibility for the welfare of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

While advocates of political correctness have been busy walking on egg-shells, they have forgotten to question whether there is any actual foundation to the notion that forced marriages, and by extension honour crimes, are endorsed by certain cultures. The vast majority of Asians in Britain - my own family included - are horrified by the mere thought of such acts. The truth is that honour crimes have no cultural basis, and the most rudimentary research, had anyone bothered to carry it out, would have revealed this to be the case.

Only a small section of the immigrant society, made up largely of members who are poorly educated and hail from traditional, often rural, backgrounds, entertain the idea of forced marriages. Furthermore, forced marriage is not sanctioned by any religion. In particular, it is a practice that is expressly forbidden in Islam, which states clearly that women and men must have freedom of choice when selecting a life-partner, as long as the person to be considered is a believer. The Prophet Mohamed granted girls who had been forced into marriages against their will the right to have their marriages annulled.

Distinctions must also be drawn between arranged marriages, where families take a leading role in choosing a partner but the couple in question are allowed the ultimate say, and forced marriages, where one or both partners do not consent. Arranged marriages are an integral part of Asian culture and are practised not just in Asia but throughout the world. In Britain, many young people choose this method because they want a partner who shares the same cultural and religious values as themselves - values which are often in conflict with those espoused by liberal Western society.

Acts of aggression against women that are related to marriage or other kinds of intimate relationships are by no means exclusively an Asian or immigrant phenomenon - almost half the women killed in Britain are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. According to an NSPCC survey, also published this week, around 20 per cent of teenage girls have been hit by their boyfriends.

But women who are victims of violence at least have recourse to the law. Those women who have suffered through refusing a forced marriage have no such option. This needs to be redressed as a matter of urgency. Forced marriages and, by extension, honour crimes are morally repugnant - there is no room for debate on this matter - and the perpetrators must be dealt with as criminals.

This week's conference on forced marriage highlighted another yet unexplored phenomenon - honour-crimes also claim men as their victims. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, who investigate between 200 and 300 forced marriages each year, say at least 15 per cent of their cases feature men as the injured party. And while a network of agencies offering help to women in forced marriages exists, the plight of unwilling bridegrooms has largely been ignored. All victims of forced marriages deserve protection, regardless of their sex, and the criminal law must be designed to do just that.

Commander Andy Baker, head of homicide at the Metropolitan Police, who led this week's conference, said the introduction of a specific criminal offence of forced marriage could help police to tackle the problem by making it easier to investigate. At the moment, officers must look for associated offences such as assault, kidnap or false imprisonment when handling a complaint; in addition, as Commander Baker pointed out, a change in the law making forced marriages illegal would send a clear message that they are not acceptable in Britain.

I am thankful and relieved that public awareness surrounding this issue is finally growing, and that questionable notions surrounding what is acceptable in the name of culture and religion are at last being challenged. Last year, government officials announced that a special unit within the Foreign Office had dealt with almost 1,000 cases of forced marriage since it was set up in 2000. It has also rescued and repatriated 70 young British people a year from overseas. The unit has built up a domestic network working closely with NGOs, women's refuges and the public sector.

Victims of forced marriages are also coming forward to highlight such practices. Pakistani-born Narina Anwar received an MBE for her courage in risking her own safety to speak out about her ordeal to help other victims. She now continues to raise awareness of the subject of forced marriage and its potentially devastating consequences.

If the victims of forced marriages are not protected, if their plight is not highlighted, the issue becomes submerged in our society, and that can only give a green light to the perpetrators. In a civilised, democratic society, the existence of any group of individuals who the law cannot apparently touch is unacceptable.

Any legislation that potentially increases protection for people who fear they may be forced into marriage cannot come too soon. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, rightly observed at this week's conference that there can never be any honour in killing. Murder is murder.

shamimcuk@yahoo.co.uk

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