Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and forced marriages in Britain
Few have much to say about women who have been transplanted into this country from cultures that regard them not as individuals but as possessions. Few have commented on 12-year-old Molly Campbell, abducted on Friday from the Hebrides and smuggled to Pakistan. Her mother’s decision to shelter in one of the most remote parts of the British Isles proved to be no protection against a father who was determined to assert his power, and possibly to force her into marriage. No doubt this little girl is torn by conflicting loyalties. Yet her abduction raises fundamental issues of equality that cannot be swept under the carpet to protect “cultural sensitivities”.
There is a new front in the fight for women’s freedom. It is in Bradford and in East London, where 90 per cent of the forced marriage cases handled by the Foreign Office originate. A team of diplomats at the British Embassy in Islamabad rescued 105 women last year. Yet the numbers in trouble are far higher. The charity Reunite, which helps victims of child abduction, dealt with 307 new cases involving 454 children last year, up by a fifth from the year before. Pakistani cases are increasing the most. A Foreign Office report on Bradford and Tower Hamlets points to the increasing numbers of young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis reaching marriageable age in this country. The mean age of the UK population is 40; the Pakistani community’s is 26 and the Bangladeshi community’s is 24.
Few are prepared to fight on this new front. There is the MP Ann Cryer and the actress Meera Syal; there are those who run refuges and helplines, such as the Southall Black Sisters and the Karma Nirvana Asian Women’s Project; and a few, lone, courageous individuals who have taken matters into their own hands. In the past year I have come across three teachers who have helped teenage pupils to escape from actual or threatened violence at home. Each seems to have been the only person the girls could confide in. Each has found the girl a refuge and tried to help her to start a new life.
But it is not easy. Even if you escape, you still have to hide. You still face the wrench of losing your family. None of these three can get council housing because they are deemed to have made themselves “intentionally homeless” by running away. Two live in fear of veangeful brothers who want revenge. Yet the social services want to “reconcile” them with their families, reinforcing the sense of guilt and shame they have at leaving. The suicide rate among young Asian women is more than three times the national average. Why is this not a mainstream campaigning issue?
The Government dropped plans to make forced marriage illegal in June, after the Muslim Council of Britain cautioned that it could be “another way to stigmatise our communities”, although it is not a practice supported by Islam or any other world religion. In July a Metropolitan Police commander reported that the decision not to make forced marriage a criminal offence had been taken by some community groups to mean that “it must be all right”.
Forcing defenceless women into marriage is not all right. It is rape, for a start. But nor is it the only problem faced by women who live closeted by male relatives and vulnerable to abuse. Government “outreach” does not extend to women who are illiterate and cannot read leaflets printed in Urdu. Some women cannot go to English language classes because their husbands, fathers, brothers will not give permission. I know of one Sure Start centre that has coaxed deprived Bangladeshi women to attend by presenting itself as a health centre. Their menfolk were reluctant to let them near a door marked “education”, but could be persuaded to let them seek health advice for their precious sons. But this kind of smart work is under the radar. Meanwhile, we deprive these women of the right to vote by introducing postal voting, so that their husbands can tick the box for them.
Such women are not easy recruits for the feminist lobby. Many of those in the first generation do not aspire to Western-style careers and notions of freedom. I found that out when I worked in Bangladesh, where uneducated women were often happy to be segregated, and my feminist ideals were met with polite incomprehension. Some more educated women also have conflicting emotions and resist being patronised. There is an enormous gulf here that does indeed call for sensitivity. The statistic that only two in ten Bangladeshi and Pakistani women in Britain are in paid work, for example, has to be handled carefully. For some, that is a choice. But that cannot be an excuse for depriving women of opportunities.
The irony is that some of our most talented aid workers are in Bangladesh and Pakistan, patiently working to provide women with education and opportunity. Some of their skills are needed here: a Tower Hamlets estate may look nothing like a Mirpuri village, but it can be just as isolating.
The few charities that are giving refuge to such women need help. They need access to council housing, they need more advocates to befriend and support girls who have left home for the first time. The MCB has condemned forced marriage. It has also opposed criminalising the practice. Why doesn’t it use its influence and financial muscle to support the charities working in the neighbourhoods where we know the problems exist? That would send a very powerful signal, and one that could not be dismissed as cultural imperialism.
The cultural questions are complex. But the feminist cause is clear. Every woman should have the right to move freely. No woman should suffer violence. Every woman should be able to say “no”. This is every bit as important as Edwardian emancipation, a cause for which some — remember? — gave their very lives.
Pakistan, U.K. Target Forced Marriages