Dec 26, 2008

Lifestyle - Call it by any name, a forced marriage is a forced marriage

Hasan Suroor

For too long Asian immigrants have been in denial over allegations of forced marriages in their communities claiming that what is often construed as a forced marriage by British authorities and rights campaigners is simply a good old arranged marriage — a little cultural misunderstanding. Confronted with hard cases there is a tendency to dismiss them as an aberration; or even accuse the victims of lying.

The government, however, insists that it is a serious problem, especially among Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups, and figures show that it is growing. Last month, a new tough law — the Forced Marriage Act — was introduced to prevent forced marriages and to enable courts to make orders to protect victims of such marriages even if they are not British nationals.

For the first time it is possible for anyone acting on behalf of a victim of forced marriage to obtain a Forced Marriage Protection Order. This is to help victims who may themselves not be in a position to do so. The punishment for those convicted of trying to force someone into a marriage is a jail term of up to two years.

The law has its roots in a long and sustained campaign by Asian women groups who regard forced marriages as a form of domestic violence. Nazia Khanum whose group, Equality in Diversity, was closely involved in consultations leading up to the new law said there was a “wall of silence” around the issue among Asian communities. The problem, she said, existed in all communities from the subcontinent and was more serious than they were willing to acknowledge.

Within days after it came into force, the Act had its first outing as a young London-based doctor from Bangladesh, who claimed that she was forced by her parents into marrying a total stranger after being tricked into returning to Dhaka, invoked it to gain freedom and return to Britain.

Fearing further attempts by her family to harass her, 32-year-old Humayra Abedin, who works for the National Health Service, went to the London High Court and got an order preventing her parents or husband from removing her from Britain without her consent. Her lawyer said proceedings to annul her marriage would begin soon.

Earlier, in what was dubbed a “moment of shame” for Asian communities, Dr. Abedin told the court in harrowing details how she was effectively abducted by her own parents, held captive in Bangladesh for four months during which period she was gagged and administered antipsychotic drugs to break her will before being forced to marry a man she had never met. While in captivity, she managed to send an email to a friend in Britain who alerted the authorities. An order, then, issued under the Forced Marriage Act led the Bangladeshi police to track her down — and on December 15 the Bangladesh Supreme Court sanctioned her immediate repatriation to Britain.

In a statement to the court, Dr. Abedin said that her ordeal began in August when her parents — apparently upset about her relationship with a non-Muslim boy — duped her into travelling to Bangladesh claiming that her mother was ill. But instead of being taken to her mother’s bedside, she was dragged into a room and locked up at the family home. Her passport, return ticket and other travel documents were confiscated. Later, she was forcibly taken to a clinic and injected “with what she believed to be mood stabilisers and anti-psychotic drugs.”

“On November 14, 2008, I was forced to marry a person of my parents’ choice…I was removed to another province of Bangladesh. I entered into the marriage ceremony under duress. I did not consent to the marriage. I have given my solicitors instructions to urgently issue proceedings in this country for a Decree of Nullity to be obtained on my behalf,” Dr. Abedin said.

The case, which sparked huge media interest, is expected to encourage other victims of forced marriages to come forward.

“The profile the case received means that other people will feel that they can come forward and seek the relief that….the Judge Mr Justice Coleridge said, they’re entitled to. He’s emphasised what’s been said before; that forced marriage is a breach of human rights and where it happens this court will deal with it if cases come before it. I don’t think it is a cultural issue, it’s a human rights issue,” Dr. Abedin’s solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson said.

Describing the Abedin case as “very significant,” Justice Minister Bridget Prentice said she expected it to send a “clear message” that forced marriage was a ‘fundamental abuse of human rights’ and would not be tolerated.”

“I am delighted that the courts have already begun to make use of the Forced Marriage Protection Order to prevent forced marriages. This is very significant and demonstrates quite clearly that the Act makes a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.… It will give victims and potential victims the confidence to come forward and seek protection,” she said.

The “killer” fact about the new law is that it does make a distinction between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage leaving little scope for apologists of forced marriages to take refuge in “cultural misunderstanding.”

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