British tolerance of forced unions wanes

The government may criminalize forced marriages, hundreds of which take place annually among Muslims.

In a drafty railway station cafe in England's Midlands, Ayesha, a young Muslim girl whose family is from Pakistan, is trying not to cry as she talks about her wedding day.

"When I was young I always expected to have an arranged marriage," she says. "But I also thought that I'd get a chance to know the man first."

Instead, at 17, her family forced her to marry a man she had never met. When Ayesha, not her real name, tried to have the marriage annulled, she was disowned by her family, and forced to flee her hometown of Birmingham.

Although every year hundreds of Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu women in Britain, according to figures from the government and aid agencies, are forced into marriage to fulfill traditional ideas of family honor or parental prestige, Britain's government has so far been reluctant to interfere in the private lives of immigrants.

But now, following the London subway and bus bombings on July 7, the government is proposing new laws that would specifically criminalize forcing others into marriage. And calls for the ban have grown as Britain attempts to integrate its insular Muslim communities into the mainstream in an effort to temper extremism.

"In Britain we are proud of our cultural diversity," said Baroness Scotland, a Home Office minister who started talks on the proposal earlier this month. "But even a sensitive appreciation of cultural differences cannot allow abuse to go unchallenged."

Shaminder Ubhi, director of the Ashiana Project, one of several London refuges for Asian and Middle Eastern women fleeing domestic violence, says that about 300 women looking for help come to them every year. "And around 60 percent say that forced marriage is one of the issues they are escaping from."

But some say that new legislation specifically targeting minorities will only increase feelings of persecution, and that the worst cases of forced marriages can be dealt with under existing laws against rape and kidnap.

"There is already enough legislation. We prefer to say it's a cultural and not a religious thing and to abolish the practice that way," says Reefat Drabu, of the controversial Muslim Council of Britain's Social and Family Affairs Committee. "The media use the issue to demonize the Muslim community. And the problem is diminishing anyway."

But in Derby, a city where Britain's growing racial divide is most apparent, the problem is far from diminishing. "The cases sound barbaric but they happen every single day," says Jasvinder Sanghera, who runs Karma Nirvana, a shelter in Derby for Asian women fleeing forced marriages and abusive husbands.

"One day last week I dealt with 12 cases. We need a complete change of mind-set," says Ms. Sanghera. "This is a human rights issue. It needs to be treated with the seriousness it deserves."

One key problem is that while many South Asian immigrants permit their sons to absorb Western influences, they often cannot accept that their young women brought up in Britain have adopted Western ideas of female independence.

"We're born here. We're bound to be influenced by Western ideals," says Sanghera, who herself ran away from home after her Sikh family tried to force her into a marriage with a stranger. "I just wanted to have a love marriage that people like you can take for granted," she says.

The challenges of reconciling their increasingly Western ambitions with their private loyalty to their family and their cultural traditions are too much for many young women. "Younger Asian women in the UK in the 16 to 24 age group have a suicide rate two to three times the national average," says Sanghera. "Girls in schools at this moment are sitting there fearing that they're about to be sent to India or Pakistan to be married off."

But while the practice of forced marriage initially came from older generations keen to preserve their traditions, many young British-born Asians perpetuate the practice as a way to differentiate themselves from mainstream British society, which many deem corrupt and immoral.

"We are seeing an increasing number of 16 year olds fleeing forced marriages," says Sanghera, "The myth is that when the older generation die this problem will go. But young people are reinventing these attitudes."

The growing isolation of minority communities, particularly in the north of England, means that even with the new law, Sanghera's ambition to stamp out the problem may take years to fulfill, especially as many community leaders deny that the problem exists.

"Some schools say not to bring our leaflets into schools because it will upset the Asian community," she says. "But our human rights organizations shouldn't worry about upsetting people. These arguments slow us down.

"Asian community leaders say leave us alone, you're stereotyping us. I wish faith groups did work with us because they hold a lot of power," says Sanghera. "These communities are not above the law. If they choose to live [here] they must sign up to helping people live free of fear and violence."

But even if the new law does prevent forced marriages, it will do little for those who have already fled their homes to escape. "I've not seen my family for eight years," says Ayesha. "I'm so disappointed - they are supposed to be the closest things to me - they're not supposed to hurt you."

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