Sunday, 27 November 2011

My Big, Fat, Forced Marriage

Inside an arranged marriage
Sameem Ali was forced to wed at the age of 13, 
but later fled the marriage

27 Nov 2011

It was a small outward rebellion symbolising far greater inner opposition: on her wedding day, 18-year-old Sairah refused to wear the bridal red of Asian weddings, or be bedecked in traditional, heavy gold jewellery.

Instead, she wore pistachio green with a thin, delicate chain around her neck. “What are you doing?” her family demanded. But Sairah insisted. For four years, she had resisted this ceremony. But now she was in Pakistan, far from her home in Scotland, about to marry her cousin. This morning, as the mehndi – intricate henna designs – were applied to her hands, she had passed out. “I was so stressed,” she explains. “I knew within myself that I was not going to be his wife because I didn’t love him. He was not my husband in my heart. I went ahead thinking, what am I going to do?” The ceremony itself was like any Asian wedding. She smiles. “Except I kept my gob shut.”
Tomorrow, new legislation will come into force in Scotland to tackle the problem of forced marriages like Sairah’s. Those at risk will be able to take out a Forced Marriage Protection Order to prevent them being pressurised into an unwanted wedding, and there is also provision for annulling forced ceremonies. This brings Scotland into line with other parts of the UK but, crucially, the legislation goes a step further. Until now, there has been resistance to criminalising forced marriage, (though the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has recently called for the matter to be reconsidered), because Asian women, in particular, would be reluctant to use the law against their own families. In Scotland, having an FMPO taken out against you will not in itself be a criminal offence, but breaching it will be, with penalties including fines and up to two years imprisonment for the most serious cases.
“It’s a great compromise,” says Sameem Ali, who was 13 and living in Scotland when she was forced into marriage in Pakistan. Ali, now a Labour counsellor in Manchester, became a mother at 14. “Criminalising forced marriage completely would push it under the carpet and nobody would come forward,” she argues. “In 2005, female genital mutilation was criminalised. Not one case has come to court. The victims have gone underground and awareness on the subject has gone too. I am passionate about not making forced marriage a female genital mutilation scenario.”
Existing legislation is already used for serious criminal offences related to forced marriage, including kidnap, rape, and child abuse. Ali’s own brother was sentenced to four years after police intercepted a group carrying weapons, and a piece of paper with Ali’s address, when she fled her marriage.
The sensitivities around forced marriage are perhaps similar to those that once existed around domestic violence. The police were reluctant to interfere in marital disputes. That was family. A man’s private business with his wife. It took time for society to recognise that being married didn’t give you ownership of your partner. Now, it is recognising that parenthood doesn’t give you ownership of your child. Forced marriage is sometimes considered a religious issue but every major world religion, including Islam, strongly disapproves of the practice.
It is a cultural issue, connected to family traditions and notions of honour. But that, says John Fotheringham, an accredited specialist in child and family law who has been part of the Scottish Government’s consultative process on forced marriage, is irrelevant. “We don’t care if it’s cultural – it’s not on. This is Scotland and Scots law will apply.”
“Honour” is sometimes taken to extremes. Police are investigating whether Glaswegian Saif Rehman and his American wife Uzma Naurin, gunned down in Pakistan this month while attending a wedding, are the victims of honour killing after Uzma refused arranged marriage. Such cases are rare and care is usually taken to distinguish between forced and arranged marriage, where the parties may not know one another but give free consent to marry. But drawing a clear line can be difficult, argues Fotheringham. “The forced marriage where someone says marry this man or you will be killed, is very extreme. People don’t say that often. What they say is, marry this man or your mother will kill herself and your university funding will be cut off.”
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