Forced marriages: no simple solution
Asian weddings are none of the UK government's business.
‘We will not tolerate what we would not accept ourselves under the guise of accepting a cultural difference’, said UK home secretary David Blunkett in an interview preceding the publication of reports into the UK summer’s race riots (1). And one of the things Blunkett’s Britain won’t accept is ‘enforced marriages’ for Asian girls, which are ‘unacceptable’.
For Asian women, having an arranged marriage is one thing. Being forced into an arranged marriage is quite another. According to a lawyer working for the child abduction charity Reunite, as many as 1000 British Asian women every year are forced into marriage.
Some of the stories are horrific. In 1998, the parents of Rehana Bashir were sentenced for drugging and attempting to send her to Pakistan. Abdul Hoque and his wife kidnapped and imprisoned their daughter when she chose to live with her West Indian boyfriend instead of her intended husband.
In May 1999, a High Court judge issued a court order to prevent Anita, a 17-year-old English Sikh, being married off to a Sikh in the Punjab. With the aid of Interpol and the Indian authorities, the UK’s Mr Justice Singer ensured that Anita was brought back to England before her eighteenth birthday so that she could be made a ward of court.
The UK government’s interest in forced marriages precedes Blunkett’s recent comments. In May 1999, then race equality minister Mike O’ Brien stated that ‘forced marriages are wrong and we are determined to tackle this issue. The government must respond sensitively to issues of cultural diversity, but multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness’.
In 1999, the UK government, provoked by media publicity about forced marriages and campaigning women’s groups, set up a working party of representatives from women’s groups, community leaders, and prominent Asian personalities, to investigate the issue of forced marriages, which reported back in June 2000. But what are the consequences of the UK government involving itself in this issue?
A Bradford women’s group called Our Voice has argued that the Primary Purpose Rule, abolished in February 1997, should be reintroduced. Under the Primary Purpose Rule consular staff would question rigorously all those who wanted to enter Britain about their specific reasons for being here. Our Voice argued that after this rule was abolished there was a rise in the number of forced marriages. Home Office figures from the late 1990s demonstrated that the number of Pakistani men using their wife’s status to gain entry into the UK rose from 1740 in 1995 to 3510 in 1997. In February 1997, the High Commission in Pakistan issued 225 visas to spouses – in 1998 the figure was 1132.
But even if these numbers do demonstrate a rise in forced marriages, anti-racist groups have traditionally campaigned against the divisive Primary Purpose Rule for years. It seems strange that any Asian group could call for its reintroduction. Some anti-forced marriage campaigns seem to imply that all Asian men have suspect intentions, when most of them do not – and some are even forced into marriages themselves.
The main concern of many Asian groups is that the UK government’s approach has traditionally been to communicate only with Asian community leaders, most of whom honour family tradition more than the needs of individual women. They claim that community leaders just throw the problem in to the lap of the families, saying, ‘Your daughter has said she does not want to marry so and so. Can you do something about this?’.
Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters has raised concerns about respect for cultural difference standing in the way of tackling the intolerable. ‘The courts have a tendency not to criticise the culture from other countries’, she said. ‘It is not enough to say that the community has to change from within – they wouldn’t expect that if a white woman was abused in this way. There are crimes committed and the police are not enforcing the law.’
How the tide has turned. In the 1960s and 70s campaigns within the Asian community were against the police and the courts intruding into Asian lives. Many of us fought for the right to move freely in and out of this country, the right to equal pay and work opportunities and the right to live without racial harassment by the state. Now, some Asian groups actively demand that the authorities get involved in their lives and communities, at the most intimate and intrusive levels.
For example, the UK Foreign Office produced a leaflet for Asian men and women on how to avoid forced marriages when on holiday. The only impact this kind of leaflet could have had was to raise children’s doubts about their parents’ intentions behind a planned holiday, and exacerbate the tensions that already exist between generations in a family.
Similarly, social services and schools have been encouraged to be suspicious of Asian parents taking their children away for long holidays to the Indian subcontinent. But Asian parents do take their children abroad, sometimes for long periods, and often missing school. Should every holiday be perceived as a cause for concern?
Ultimately it is up to Asian people to solve their problems. The UK Muslim Parliament launched an awareness-raising campaign within its community on the issue of forced marriages, and over the years there have been proposals to introduce a legal document to be signed by both partners before every Muslim marriage, agreeing that their partnership is consensual.
The plea by Asian and feminist groups for government help to stop forced marriages may be well-meaning – and under Blunkett, the Home Office will be only too keen to help out. But do we really want every Asian parent to become the subject of suspicion and inquiry?
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