Faiths fight forced marriage

This week’s inauguration of the Global Freedom Network — a large-scale interfaith initiative to end slavery — publicly recognises the importance of interfaith collaboration as a means of understanding and addressing social issues. The united efforts of Catholic, Anglican and Muslim leaders reflect a realisation that no single religious tradition can solve an issue as immense as slavery, and that solutions to big issues require the wisdom of many.

The launch comes not long after an interfaith forum on forced marriage, which I attended earlier this month at the NSW Parliament. The issue of forced marriage re-entered Australia’s media spotlight in February following reports that an imam in NSW married a 12-year-old-girl to a 26-year-old man. Now, for the first time in Australia’s history, the issue was being discussed in an interfaith context.

Forced marriage was not presented as an issue limited to one religious tradition. It was presented as a human issue fuelled by emotional, cultural and familial matters that span religious traditions. It was therefore an issue that must be dealt with by the broader society.

It is easy to deem a problem ‘somebody else’s business’, especially when the issue seems far-fetched and foreign. But it would be foolish to leave it solely to the Muslim community to address the issue of forced marriage, which is the product of deep cultural and familial structures. Islam itself condemns forced marriage, and Muslim leaders need to be educated and trained to work with forced marriage victims. But the roots of the issue span cultures and religions to the extent that one religious community alone cannot end this practice.

This year, for the first time in Australia, we read about an incident of forced marriage in the Muslim community and, rather than scoff and make derogatory comments, we discussed the issue sensibly in a public forum. We took it to the NSW Parliament. We invited Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Jews to take part in the discussion. And we discovered that forced marriage is not a Muslim issue.

Clinical psychologist Dr Saroja Srinivasm, Hindu representative on the interfaith panel, described the emotional, cultural and familial factors involved in forced marriages: ‘You have parents telling their daughters that if they don’t marry, Grandma will have a heart attack.’ Girls feel compelled to honour the will of their parents and preserve their cultural heritage, or face community violence. In cases where women refuse to enter a marriage or request a divorce, communities often react by saying, ‘She destroyed her family. How can we support her?’

Forced marriage is not an issue that can be handed over to one religious tradition for solutions. Panellists emphasised the need for early intervention and education in schools and communities.

For years, interfaith dialogue has been taking place in homes, places of worship, and community centres. In the wake of September 11, mosques, temples and synagogues held open days, Muslim homes were opened during Ramadan, and interfaith discussion groups began in the lounge rooms of well-intentioned individuals. Efforts have been local, organic, and motivated by a humble desire to get to know the person next door.

For the interfaith veterans who have spent years fostering relations with other faiths, the launch of the Global Freedom Network is encouragement that their work is valued. It is a sign that our global leaders see interfaith collaboration not as a token gesture, but as a crucial step in addressing important issues.

As expressed in a joint statement by the founding committee: ‘Only by activating, all over the world, the ideals of faith and shared human values can we marshal the spiritual power, the joint effort, and the liberating vision to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from our world and for our time.’

From climate change to slavery to forced marriage, solutions can only be found through time spent in dialogue and deep exchange. We need to listen. We need to share. We need to collaborate. An interfaith initiative as large and potentially influential as the Global Freedom Network is unprecedented. It is, indeed, a step forward.

A link to the article can be found here.