Muslim girls and forced marriages in Britain
Barely able to speak for holding back tears, 16-year-old Nabila Hussein looks away as she struggles to keep herself together. She is shaking. She is contemplating how she would feel if her parents managed to force her to marry on a trip they are planning back home to Pakistan. "Heartbreaking. It would be heartbreaking," she whispers.
Like many girls, Nabila has a boyfriend. However, as the daughter of a conservative Muslim family, this puts her at risk. Once when she was out walking with her boyfriend, a family friend saw them and reported back. Since then, her two elder brothers have subjected her to repeated beatings, one of which was so serious it resulted in a trip to hospital.
Nabila's schoolwork has suffered, partly as a result of the emotional trauma and partly because of the raging migraines she now gets through being repeatedly beaten about the head. She's studying for AS-levels, but doesn't think she has much chance of getting them. Her parents are saying that they want to take her on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), but she is convinced this is a pretext for marrying her off to someone she has never met.
Nabila is one of many victims of "honour-based" violence, which, at its most extreme, can see young women of south Asian and Kurdish origin being murdered by their families. This kind of abuse has its roots in the cultural concept of women's chastity being in the control of the men in her family; any suggestion of independence is seen as defiling the family's reputation or "honour". It can occur in strict Muslim and also Sikh families.
When Aisha Ali, also 16, protested at her family's plans to marry her off, her father transformed from loving parent to violent abuser. She had already seen her sisters forcibly married on what they had all been told was a family trip to Pakistan. "My dad used to always encourage me to get a job, do further education, and then he just changed and said I had to get married," she says. "He got violent, abusive, and said I'd lost the honour of our family. And once a girl does that, parents can do anything - they get the younger people in the family to do the killing, they don't do it themselves, they get the younger ones to do it."
In June this year, the Home Office rejected calls by women's groups to criminalise forced marriage; however, following his speech at the Labour party conference, it seems the home secretary, John Reid, may be set to reconsider this decision.
The Forced Marriage Unit, launched in January 2005 and part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, deals with between 250 to 300 cases a year, most of which involve girls of school age. This figure, however, does not reflect the reality of the crisis; some cases will be dealt with by NGOs, others by social services, and many will never be discovered at all. At times, girls simply disappear.
At West Yorkshire police, former inspector Philip Balmforth, now the Bradford district's vulnerable persons officer responsible for Asian females, highlights a statistical analysis done several years ago by Bradford city council. It tracked 1,000 boys and 1,000 girls with Muslim names as they moved through school; at primary, for 1,000 boys on roll, there were 989 girls; by secondary, the 1,000 boys were still around, but the number of girls had dwindled to 860. Across the report the analyst had written: "Where have all the girls gone?" Balmforth, who gives talks to teachers and social workers, says the answer is that the girls have been taken to Bangladesh or Pakistan.
In such cases, by the time teachers notice girls have disappeared, it is frequently too late to do anything. The pattern that leads to forced marriage tends to run as follows: emotional blackmail, threats, beatings, imprisonment and kidnap. Young women can be experiencing all of these and still be attending school, albeit intermittently. And this offers a crucial window of opportunity for teachers to notice, assess and address the danger their charges may be in.
Schoolgirl Heshu Yones was 17 when, in 2002, her father stabbed her and cut her throat. She bled to death. Her father is now serving a life sentence. Heshu had already endured a campaign of beatings and threats, a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with the intention of marrying her off, and a shamed return to Britain after a medical examination questioned her virginity.
Police sources have told Education Guardian that Heshu, a student at the William Morris Academy in west London, had reported her deteriorating home situation to teachers on several occasions but that despite this, the school contacted her parents expressing concern that her grades were going down and that her relationship with a boy was affecting her coursework.
The headteacher of William Morris Academy, Liz Walton, declined to talk to Education Guardian about the impact of this loss on her school or any measures put in place to make sure children in such difficulties can be helped in the future.
Many teachers feel they are ill-equipped to recognise the signs of possible problems, let alone to intervene. Many would like to have access to more help and information. A course on forced marriage run each year by West Yorkshire police specifically for school staff is always oversubscribed, and Karma Nirvana, a Derby-based women's group, together with Derby city council's child protection officer, Kevin Murphy, regularly goes into schools to explain what steps need to be taken when managing this type of unfolding emergency.
A teacher may not know whether to believe an adolescent girl who says, perhaps in an offhand way, that her father says he's going to kill her if she carries on seeing some boy. Teenagers having bust-ups with their families is hardly news. And there is real fear among some professionals that interfering with cultural customs they don't understand would risk charges of ignorance or racism.
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