Publication: Tehelka (New Delhi)
Date: September, 2000


Nuptial nightmares in London


The British Home Office is in a quandary as South Asians
in the country are embroiled in a generational conflict.
The Asian youth want to break away from the taboos and
restrictions. Community elders are willing to resort to
force, including murder, to preserve traditions,
writes Salil Tripathi from London




Rukhsana Naz was a 19-year-old woman who lived with her family in
Normanton, Derby. When she was 15, her parents lured her to go to Pakistan,
where they came from, for a holiday. Once there, she was forced to marry a
man she had never known before. She could not overcome the pressure from
her family, and agreed to the marriage.


This story, in itself, would not have been remarkable; the South Asian
subcontinent is full of children being told to marry partners that parents
and other elders have chosen for them, in their best interest.


But Rukhsana's story is different. She was born in Britain (which was the
main attraction for the husband she scarcely knew). Once she was back in
Britain, she seemed to have determined not to remain chained to the
tradition that her family had imported to their new country, and now
imposed on her. Rukhsana rebelled; she began seeing her boyfriend again,
and ended up pregnant.


The story ended tragically: her mother Shakeela Naz and her brother,
Shazad, were unable to accept this act of rebellion, and deeply shamed by
this slur on the family's izzat, decided to kill her. Shakeela held her
daughter's feet while Shazad strangled her with a piece of plastic flex.
"They killed her, and the brother got rid of the body," recalls Hanana
Siddiqui, co-ordinator at Southall Black Sisters, a support group for
British Asian women in London. A court convicted the mother and son last
year.


That case shocked Britain, leading to soul-searching among progressive
Asians and liberal whites: what are the limits of multiculturalism? Where
should the tradition end and assimilation begin? It also reinforced the
more conservative elements among Asians and whites. The Asian elders felt
it was time for the young ones to be disciplined; the extreme segments of
the white community began muttering loudly, asking if Britain needed all
these immigrants.


Another story, sounding like a Bollywood melodrama, except that tragically,
this is a true story, involves Jack and Zena Briggs, a couple that has
lived for nearly seven years under this fictitious identity, leading the
life of fugitives. Jack is white, Zena is of Pakistani origin. They met,
fell in love and got married. Her family did not like that, and have placed
a price on their heads. Bounty hunters are said to be looking for them.


The Asian elders felt it was time for the young ones to be disciplined; the
extreme segments of the white community began muttering loudly, asking if
Britain needed all these immigrants


   Sensing the imploding crisis, the government has swung into action. In
July, 1999, the parents of a young British woman of Pakistani origin
fromBradford, Rehana Bashir, were jailed for attempting to drug her and
force her on to a flight to Islamabad for an arranged marriage. Then again
last year, Abdul Hoque and his wife Ayesha were jailed in London after
being found guilty of conspiring to kidnap and falsely imprison their


daughter, who chose to live with her West Indian boyfriend, rather than
have an arranged marriage.


To be sure, the Asian community in Britain has begun to assert itself as a
major force in the society, and there is much to celebrate. Asian faces are
not that rare in media, politics, and particularly the arts. There is an
Asian in the elite interest-rate setting team of the Bank of England. The
English cricket captain is Madras-born Nasser Husain, and one member of the
English Davis Cup team is Arvind Parmar. The Asian Dub Foundation is a
popular alternate music group. Second-generation Asian writers like Meera
Syal, Atima Srivastava and Bidisha are increasingly seen at literary
gatherings. And "Goodness Gracious Me", a popular Asian TV show, is
becoming as popular among the British as, well, chicken tikka masala, which
is now reputed to be the most popular British dish.


However, as the new generation integrates more with the British mainstream,
the older generation is resisting change. Its response is atavistic and, in
these extreme cases, violent. But the escalating violence accompanying some
of the well-publicized cases of forced marriages has forced the British
government to appoint a commission to investigate the issue. Its report,
out late last month, is now accused for pulling punches.


At heart, the problem is of culture. What constitutes British culture, and
tradition? In an increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial Britain,
where can the authorities draw the line? Should they interfere in the
internal affairs of a community?


Britain has been through this path before, in 1989, when Salman Rushdie's
The Satanic Verses was published. As British Muslims in Bradford and
Birmingham made bonfires of the book, and many wanted Rushdie to be killed
for his blasphemy, the British government provided the necessary security
cover to protect Rushdie. At that time, too, there were misgivings among
the more conservative elements of the British society: some whites resented
the British tax-payers providing security to Rushdie, who, they thought,
should have known better than to have written a novel critical of Islam.
Why can't the Asians live in Asia and fight their squabbles there, ran
another refrain. Shouldn't British Muslims follow British laws and accept
free speech as an essential part of Britain's democratic society?


Except, that Britain's blasphemy laws applied unequally; slurs on
Christianity are not allowed, but other religions were fair game. And
Britain's stringent libel laws still make it hard for US-style press
freedom to flourish in the country that's so proud of being the mother of
parliaments. When Prime Minister Tony Blair says his newborn son cannot be
photographed, the press, by and large, obeys.


The issue of forced marriage is, however, not a quaint ritual that can be
tolerated as a matter of cultural preference. There are no reliable
statistics about the extent of the problem of forced marriages, but
Reunite, an NGO that works on child abduction cases, believes there are
about 1,000 cases of forced marriages in Britain each year. As more and
more young British women of Asian origin are being compelled into
relationships by their apparently well-meaning parents, in order to
preserve the community's ties, the dilemma becomes acute. "The pressure is
enormous," says Harpreet Kaur, a 21-year-old Sikh woman in North London.
"They apply all sorts of pressures--they suggest they'd buy you a house if
you marry the right man; they even blackmail you emotionally, saying if you
marry someone from another culture, who will look after them when they grow
older?"


For progressive Asians, forced marriage presents a vicious conundrum: Tired
of tokenism and racism that many minority communities continue to believe
is widespread in the British establishment, should they criticise the
community's bad practices, which would erode their credibility, or remain
silent? "We are reliving the Rushdie years," says Shahnaz Husain, a social
worker. "The issue, however, is not Islam, but patriarchy."


She has a valid point: while many of the reported cases involve Muslim
families, Hindus and Sikhs are not immune. Vandana Patel was constantly
being beaten by her husband in London. She had repeatedly approached London
Metropolitan Police's domestic violence unit for help. The prevailing view,
however, was to make marriages work, and reconcile the differences of
partners. Even after having left him, she was asked to meet him again at
the Stoke Newington police station, where the domestic violence unit had
promised help. But briefly, she was left alone in his company. He stabbed
her; she died. In another case involving a Sikh family, Anita, a
17-year-old girl from London was forcibly taken to a village in Punjab to
be married. She had to be returned in May last year, after a British High
Court Judge intervened and made her a ward of the court.


For progressive Asians, forced marriage presents a vicious conundrum: Tired
of tokenism and racism that many minority communities continue to believe
is widespread in the British establishment, should they criticise the community's bad practices, which
would erode their credibility, or remain silent?


   British officials say one reason there are fewer Indian cases, as
against Pakistani and Bangladeshi ones, is that Pakistan and Bangladesh
allow dual nationality. India doesn't. It is, therefore, easier for the
British Foreign Office to intervene directly with Indian authorities. In
Pakistan and Bangladesh, they have to face another bureaucratic hurdle:
determining the nationality of the abducted girl or woman.
Sara Hoosain, a lawyer and activist, says, in any case, the Islamic Shar'ia
law forbids marriages that occur without the consent of both parties, as
required in arranged marriages


. Consensual arranged marriages could become non-consensual forced
marriages when a woman is subjected to emotional, social or even physical
pressure. There are many unreported cases of forced marriages leading to
abduction, violence, sexual abuse, rape and in a few cases, murder.


While the Home Office report, "A Choice By Right," sets the agenda for
tackling the issue, it has been criticised for not going far enough. The
report was drafted by a working group chaired by two Asian peers, Baroness
Uddin of Bethnal Green and Lord Ahmed of Rotherham. The group's aim was to
provide a consistent approach to prevent forced marriage. Among the guiding
principles the group underlined are a shared commitment from Government,
service providers, communities and opinion leaders to tackle forced
marriage; providing safety and protection to the victims; allowing for
sensitivity to cultural differences; listening to and involving communities
in tackling forced marriage; monitoring policies to prevent forced
marriage; training government and other officials tackling these issues,
and promoting awareness of rights among women.


Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien said: "We will be working closely with
community groups and service providers across the board to bring an end to
this terrible practice."


However, what activists are angry about is the report's faith in mediation
as an option. Siddiqui of the Southall Black Sisters considered that
recommendation as weakening enough to resign from the working
group.Explaining her decision, Siddiqui says: "Mediation is not an option
in many cases. Their argument is that in a multicultural society the
minority culture has to be respected. So they do not want to interfere with
it. But usually, they listen to the community's leaders, who are the
gatekeepers.


They tend to be male, conservative and patriarchal. They are seen as
homogenous, but divisions and power differences within the community are
not recognised. Women become invisible."


Siddiqui however praises the report for its conclusion, that
multiculturalism should not be an excuse for moral blindness.
"Unfortunately, the report is not radical enough, and does not go far
enough. The focus has been on the community, without taking into account
the wider picture of state responsibility," she says. "The government is
still very weak, and is appeasing community leaders, by saying they could
opt for mediation. They must listen to the voices of the women. The state
should not endorse mediation as an option because it places the community
leaders in a position to influence decisions as mediators, and that leads
to the woman being forced to go back to the crisis. There is nothing to
ensure protection. Mediation undermines agencies, the state, and the
protection it has to offer. The solution is weak, not radical; it
undermines women."


"When people tell me," Siddiqui adds, "Why not try mediation, I think of
what happened to Vandana Patel. She tried." Vandana Patel died in 1992;
Rukhsana Naz in 1999. This insane cycle, of violence and forced marriages,
must end. This is one umbilical cord the British Asian community must tear
asunder, if it is to take its rightful place. It is not just a question of
choice. It is a matter of right.