Focus on forced marriages among Asian communities in the U.K.

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Nazia Khanum… Emphasis on community engagement and action.
Nazia Khanum… Emphasis on community engagement and action.

Hasan Suroor

A newly released report finds that such marriages continue to be a serious problem — and that they are not restricted to any single group.

Academic and social activist Nazia Khanum’s report on forced marriages among Asian communities in Britain has reignited the debate on issues such as integration and cultural practices and to what extent the state can (or should) intervene to regulate customs and practices that it regards as being inconsistent with British “values.” There is a view that the scale of forced marriages has been exaggerated and that what are often portrayed as forced alliances are actually arranged marriages — conducted with mutual consent. The dominant view among Indian communities, especially Hindus and Sikhs, is that forced marriages mostly happen among Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants and that Indians should not be “lumped” with them.

Dr. Khanum, who heads an independent think-tank, Equality in Diversity, and advises the government on issues relating to ethnic minorities, insists that forced marriages are a “serious problem” and rejects claims that it is restricted to any one group. Originally from Bangladesh, she was awarded an OBE for her work on race relations.

Speaking to The Hindu after the release of her report last week, Dr. Khanum said there was a “wall of silence” among Asian communities around the issue of forced marriages.

Excerpts from the interview:

How serious is the problem of forced marriages? There is a view among Asian groups that its scale is grossly exaggerated and that what is often mistaken for a “forced” marriage is actually an arranged marriage.

The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit deals with about 300 cases a year. If they constitute about 10 per cent of actual cases which are not reported as in the case of rape or domestic violence, it is reasonable to assume that the real total figure of incidents of forced marriages could be ten times more — in other words around 3,000 a year nationally. There is a clear distinction between an arranged marriage (arranged with the full and free consent of the bride and the groom) and a forced marriage where physical and/or psychological force is applied to the bride or groom or both to go through the wedding ceremony. The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 has a legal definition of forced marriage.

Indian families claim that the problem is confined mainly to Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups. Is that true? How widespread is it among Indian families?

Forced marriage exists in many traditional communities — Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as well as Indian and African families. The largest communities which display such strong commitment to a sense of ‘traditional’ values are South Asian — Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians — and so the majority of forced marriages take place among these communities. It happens among other minorities as well, especially [those] from Africa, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, but the numbers are inevitably smaller. Some 65 per cent of the cases handled by the Forced Marriage Unit are from families of Pakistani origin, 25 per cent of Bangladeshi origin and the remaining 15 per cent of other origins.

Where force is used in marriage, it is generally justified through an appeal to traditional values — the authority and wisdom of parents, the children’s duty of obedience, customary patterns of marriage within specific ethnic, religious, clan, caste or class groupings, the honour of the family, etc. The use of force itself is seldom justified. Indeed, forced marriage is universally condemned, even by the perpetrators. Few people openly support force in marriage. When it happens, the perpetrators do not say — or for the most part even believe — that they are forcing their children into an unpleasant situation. They say — and usually believe — that their greater age, wisdom and experience give them a better understanding of their children’s long term welfare.

Your report says that forced marriages were not once uncommon even among white British communities. Is it still happening?

Historically, forced marriage was common among all communities. Although the expression ‘shotgun wedding’ is nowadays used jokingly among white British people, it testifies to the use of force in marriage in the past. Over the course of the twentieth century, the use of force in marriage has become less common within the white British community as a result of changes in relationships between parents and children, and between men and women — including greater readiness to accept lone parenthood. ….. Parental disapproval of marriages can be forcible and even violent, especially if the spouse is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic or religious group or class, but when white people are involved such incidents are more likely to be classified as domestic violence rather than forced marriage. It should be borne in mind, though, that if publicity for forced marriage becomes more high profile, some white people may start to recognise that they too fall within the syndrome of forced marriage!

What about parents who were themselves born and brought up in Britain? Are they also guilty of pushing their children into “forced” marriages?

The number of Asian and African parents born in Britain who are old enough to have grown-up children is still small. I have not come across parents born and brought up here who are coercing their children into forced marriages. Parents who push children into forced marriages often are unaware of the family law of this country. They believe they are doing the right thing by choosing the most suitable brides or grooms for their children.

Over the past few years, the British Government has taken a number of steps to check this and we now have a Forced Marriage Act. How far have these measures helped? At the moment it is not a criminal offence. Do you think making it a criminal offence, as the Tories are demanding, would help?

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 has only been in force a few months. Its impact cannot be measured so quickly. The more extreme actions relating to forced marriage are already criminal offences — for instance kidnapping, threatening, assaulting, etc. If the current laws are interpreted and implemented effectively, there is no need for more legislation.

It is all very well to call for government action, but is anything being done at the community level? We’re now dealing with second and third generations of Asians. How many more generations will take for such “cultural” practices to stop?

My report doesn’t particularly call for government action. A great deal of emphasis has been put on community engagement and action. It is not useful to speculate about how long it might take for such cultural practices to stop.



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