When Neelum Aziz visited Kashmir for the first time last year, the young British girl couldn't wait to explore her family's home village. But her parents had something else in mind.
Two weeks after arriving in Kotli - in the Pakistan-administered part of the disputed territory - Ms. Aziz was told she had to marry her cousin.
"[My father and uncle] took away my [British] passport, money, and other belongings and locked me up," she says. "I screamed and shouted and kept on crying. My tears dried up, but my family elders did not listen to me and married me to a cousin of mine without my consent," she says.
Aziz's story is only the most recent example of hundreds of young girls who become victims of their families' desire to preserve an age-old tradition. According to human rights activists, 250 girls like Aziz - daughters of British citizens from Pakistan - were forced into marriages with relatives in 2002 alone.
For many Pakistanis living abroad, sending their child to marry in the home country is a sure way to preserve culture and lineage. But for many of the girls themselves, who chafe at harsh parental control after relishing freedom in their adopted country, this clash of cultures is a breach of fundamental human rights. It's a cultural clash that diplomats and law- enforcement officials find difficult to resolve, because it takes place in two separate countries and legal systems.
"[These Pakistanis] opt to live in the West but want to keep alive the traditions of the East which victimize women," says Zia Awan, the head of Madadgaar, a nongovernmental organization that provides legal aid and is a crisis center for women in Karachi, Pakistan. "Bringing the girls back to Pakistan makes coercion simpler and easier, as the young girls being brought up in the West are alienated from their known environment," he says.
Most of the reported cases are of British-born Pakistanis; about a million Pakistanis live in England. But activists say girls of Pakistani descent from Norway, the Netherlands, and Ireland have also been brought to Pakistan by their parents and forcibly married to relatives.
The practice is not new, but seemingly on the rise, according to Mr. Awan. "We are witnessing an extremist return to Islam, especially among Pakistanis living abroad. They perceive the changing policies of the West to combat terrorism as a direct hostility toward Muslims living in the West, and we believe that the rise in forced marriages is linked to the changing attitudes."
In Pakistan, forced marriages usually go uncontested. "Here girls are treated as animals. They are bought, sold and even bartered to settle the tribal feuds," says a well known, independent human rights activist in Karachi, Attiya Dawood. "The girl is a symbol of honor in our society and is targeted at every level." Her consent in a marriage has "no importance," she adds.
Some observers point out that forced marriages are a cultural, rather than religious, issue. Marriage in Islam is a civil contract, requiring that the woman vocally express her consent three times in front of witnesses.
"Islam is not a religion of extremism or coercion. It does not allow this practice," says Anis Ahmed, a professor of comparative religion at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. "There is a difference in the social and cultural ethos in civilization of the East and the West. Here girls have to take their families and parents into consideration while marrying, it is not just one person's decision. So there is a difference between the perception about marriage in the West and East."
Attempts by women to protest arranged marriages often backfire. In one widely reported case, Samia Sarwar was murdered at a women's shelter in Lahore in April 1999. A resident of Peshawar, she fled to Lahore seeking legal assistance to file for divorce from her abusive husband and to marry a man of her own choice. But, according to Amnesty International, Ms. Sarwar's educated and influential parents considered her request for divorce a dishonor and hired a hit man to shoot her during a meeting with her lawyers.
Five years ago, Rukhsana Naz, a British girl of Pakistani origin, was strangled to death by her brother in Britain. Her crime was that she had refused to stay in a marriage arranged when she was 16. A court in Britain sentenced Ms. Naz's brother and her mother - who assisted in the murder - to life in prison. The incident triggered a movement within the British community against this illegal practice of forced marriages, and a liaison was established by British and Pakistani authorities in Islamabad to help victims of forced marriages.
Aziz herself managed to escape her parents' decision, taking advantage of this liaison. When she refused to marry her cousin and threatened to return to Britain, Aziz says the family elders locked her in her room. "I was kept there and provided meals. My elders would ... try to convince me that it would be better for my family if I marry my cousin. It went on for almost 12 days, and then a cleric was called, and i was wedded to a person whom I did not want to spend the rest of my life with."
Eventually, Aziz sent a letter calling for help to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Within a few days, British officials learned that Aziz was already married and being detained against her will.
Aziz appeared in high court May 2 in Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. With help from the British High Commission, the chief justice ordered her release. "If I am sent back to [Kashmir], I fear they will kill me," Ms Aziz told the court. "I am told not to speak the truth otherwise I will be shot,"
Last week, she returned to Britain. Her lawyer, Raja Shafqat Khan Abbasi, who handled 14 cases like hers within the past year, says she still fears for her life. But, he adds, "the best part is she is now in Britain, and she can live her life."