Forced marriage: the survivors’ tales

Every year thousands of British girls are spirited abroad to marry men they’ve never met. Sally Howard reveals the shocking truth about forced marriage in 21st century Britain

“Our typical caller is a 13- to 18-year-old girl,” says Jasvinder Sanghera. “She’s bright, likes school and behaves like a normal British adolescent. Suddenly, she’s noticed a mood shift at home: wedding clothes are being bought, a last-minute overseas trip is being planned. In some cases, she’s aware she’s been promised for marriage since birth. In many cases, her fate is a nasty shock.”

Sanghera, herself a survivor of forced marriage, founded Karma Nirvana at her kitchen table in Derby in 1996. Today the charity runs educational workshops on forced marriage and honour abuse for police forces and social services, and a forced marriage and honour abuse helpline, which fields 6,500 calls a year. “Calls have risen 60 per cent in five years,” she says. “There is greater awareness of the issue of forced marriage. But we know this is the tip of the iceberg. The problem with tackling forced marriage is the culture of secrecy in communities in which these abuses are prevalent.”

According to Department for Education statistics, each year 8,000 British girls at risk of forced marriage come to the attention of schools, police forces and social services. In 38 per cent of these known cases a forced marriage has already taken place, the majority involving a young female of South Asian heritage (in 2008, 64 per cent of cases related to girls of Pakistani heritage, 15 per cent Bangladeshi and eight per cent Indian). These figures do not take into account the potentially large number of victims who do not come to the attention of agencies.

Forced marriage, where there is no consent, is distinct from arranged marriage, in which both parties have consented to, but can refuse, the union. The motivations behind forced marriage vary: forced marriage survivors cite their marriage being used as a means of securing a UK visa for an overseas family member, or as a corrective to their perceived “Westernisation”. Girls are typically affianced as children and sent abroad for a marriage ceremony in their mid to late teens. In most cases, the girl subject to forced marriage will return to her home country in the months following the ceremony and her husband will apply for a spouse visa to join her in Britain.

In Karma Nirvana’s offices on the outskirts of Leeds I meet Ayesha Khan, 36, a softly spoken police researcher. Ayesha would agree to take part in this feature only on condition that she was given a pseudonym, and her story of being forced into marriage has a familiar prelude. “My parents were strict Scots Muslims and as a teenager I couldn’t choose when I went out, or who my friends were,” she says. “I wasn’t a rebel. I just wanted an independent life, like the girls I saw on TV.”

Ayesha Khan, 36 (Kate Peters)

At 18, Khan ran away from home, beginning a year-long cat-and-mouse chase with her paternal uncles. “I tried to disappear,” she says, “first in Dundee, then in London, where I signed on as a homeless person. Each time I moved, my uncles tracked me down and threatened to kill me if I didn’t go back to my parents.” Khan returned home. “I was exhausted, and had nowhere to run.” Her parents received her warmly. “But the night I returned one uncle put his hands around my throat and hissed that he’d happily serve 20 years for killing me if I pulled a stunt like that again.”

Soon afterwards her parents suggested a family holiday to visit relatives in Pakistan. “From the day we arrived,” she says, “I was bombarded with pressure to marry a man I was distantly related to on my father’s side: uncles and grandparents, calls from Scotland. I was made to feel as if this was something I had to do to compensate for the shame of running away.” A week later, cornered and unhappy, she went ahead with the marriage.

“The first time I saw this man was at the ceremony,” she continues. “On our wedding night he raped me. When I told my mother this the next day she said, ‘It’s the husband’s prerogative if he wants to have sex.’” Married life worsened for Khan after she returned to Britain and her husband was granted indefinite leave to join her. “He became controlling and violent,” she says. “I had to dress in a hijab, behave like a good Pakistani housewife, even though I was tired from going out to work every day.”

One day, after Khan had fled another violent row at her marital home, her parents gave her an ultimatum. “My mum told me to make my marriage work or to get divorced and marry an older man. She said, and I remember this clearly, ‘You’re damaged goods now. No one else will want you.’” That night Khan tried to commit suicide. “I slashed my wrists across, the way they show it on TV dramas, and I just sat there, crying.”

“The narratives of forced marriage are those of izzat, or honour,” saysAneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom, a charity that stages awareness-raising talks about forced marriage in British schools. “In many cases, the family member enforcing izzat is a male relative, often an uncle or a victim’s brother. Perhaps the father isn’t around and the brother, in his immaturity, assumes the role of maintaining his sister’s honour. This scenario is reflected in the fact that the average age of an individual prosecuted for breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Order is 22 years old.”

Until the law for England and Wales changed earlier this week there was no specific criminal offence of forced marriage. Now anyone found guilty of arranging or abetting a forced marriage can be imprisoned for up to seven years. In addition, anyone who breaches a Forced Marriage Protection Order – previously regarded as a civil offence with a maximum prison sentence of two years attached for contempt of court – can now be tried in the criminal courts and imprisoned for up to five years.

The bill has its detractors, who point to the risks of the practice being pushed further underground and of families sidestepping legal redress by sending girls overseas for their teenage years. The solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson acts for the victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence. “The problem is evidence,” she says. “Girls are already reluctant to give detailed accounts that will implicate their parents. Will they want to give evidence when a lengthy prison sentence is at stake?”

Last year, in a move that made national headlines, Karma Nirvana advised girls at risk of forced marriage to sequester a spoon in their underwear to set off airport metal detectors in the case of being taken overseas against their will. “That way they’d get a chance to raise an alarm with airport security,” Sanghera says. “The advice didn’t make us especially popular with Heathrow!” Sanghera is confident that the new law will make a difference to the lives of such girls. “The law will send a strong message,” she says. “It will give girls the power to say to their parents, ‘No, this is a crime.’ It will also motivate frontline agencies, notably the police, whose effective response can make the difference between a girl being saved from forced marriage and her swift disappearance overseas.”

Like many survivors of honour abuse, the writer Shaheen Hashmat, 29, has had to sever all ties with her family – and it has not proved easy. “Holidays like Eid are the darkest days,” she says, hands hugging her coffee cup. “You go from these big gatherings of extended family where kids are jumping all over you to sitting alone. I find it hard to cook for myself, too, as I feel it makes little sense. Food in my upbringing was communal: it was family.”

Outwardly, Hashmat is one of the lucky ones. As a 13-year-old she ran away from the home in a small town in central Scotland where she’d seen, and suffered, serial abuses. “I couldn’t bear seeing the abuses in my family and, as I grew up, I spoke up,” she says. “At 12, I was told I had an attitude problem. I knew then that I was at risk of forced marriage. I’d seen it with other family members: forced marriage used as a way of controlling rebel members of the family who won’t conform.”

Hashmat’s escape was orchestrated by her local police force and social services: “For months I smuggled my possessions out of my bedroom window into a waiting car.” Although Hashmat’s life was now her own, the everyday became no easier. “I was ostensibly in foster care,” she says, “but I was essentially alone. I went from a very restricted environment to being free to wear what I wanted, to talk to boys, and it was overwhelming. I didn’t have the emotional tools to keep myself safe. As a consequence I was raped three times in my teens and early twenties. And I have had to deal with suicidal feelings on a regular basis for many years.”

Hashmat agrees that the law change is a good thing, “But we still have a long way to go. Girls escaping forced marriage need immediate psychiatric assessment, legal and financial help and career guidance. At the moment many survivors are left to cope with little support.”

Yesmien Ali, 42

Yesmien Ali, 42, a businesswoman, hopes the law change will embolden parents to resist pressure to marry their daughters to relatives overseas. “Throughout my childhood, my mother and father financially supported family members back in Pakistan,” says Ali, who grew up in Yorkshire. Her two older sisters were promised in marriage to relatives of her father, who sought spouse visas, and at 12 Ali was engaged to a 24-year-old relative from her mother’s side of the family. At 16, she was sent to Pakistan for a shotgun marriage: “There wasn’t even time to apply wedding henna,” she says. “It was a case of, ‘Quick, quick, before the silly foreigner changes her mind.’” The abuses Ali suffered during her months in Kashmir, at her mother-in-law’s hands, left her permanently blind in one eye and led to her missing the chance to pay her last respects to her dying father.

Ali, who is now divorced with four children, never told her mother about her experiences in Pakistan or how unhappy her marriage was when her husband joined her in Britain. “I feel sorry for her. I know how great the pressure was to fall in line with what the family wanted,” she says. “From the outset my father didn’t want to go ahead with the marriage, but my mother said, ‘We must do it. If we don’t go ahead there will be shame on the family.’”

To Anne-Marie Hutchinson, stories such as Ali’s show how emotionally nuanced cases of forced marriage can be. “We can’t simply paint the parents as ogres,” she says. “Usually, they love their children. Often there’s a genuine belief that what they’re doing is in the child’s best interest.”

Ali hopes the picture will be brighter for her children’s generation. “I find it remarkable that what happened to me 25 years ago is still happening to girls today,” she says. When it comes to her 23-year-old daughter, she is clear. “I say to her, ‘You go out there and choose who you want to love, be he white, Chinese, whatever,’” she says with a smile. “All I ask is that she’s happy.”

Karma Nirvana: 0800 599 9247; Freedom Charity: 0845 607 0133;

A link to the article can be found here.