Britain Takes Steps Against Forced Marriages

British-born women in immigrant families face the demands of relatives, culture, and tradition.

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Activists agree, however, that forced marriages shouldn't be excused as a cultural prerogative. "That's absolute rubbish," Sanghera insists. "That's dealing with it so sensitively that it's turning a blind eye to a crime." Khanum says the practice is based on tribal, patriarchal family values. "It's about power relationships in families," she says. And while some parents use religion to rationalize their behavior, that argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny, Khanum adds. "Fourteen hundred years ago, Islam banned forced marriages."

But fears of interfering in what's perceived as Asian culture can make non-Asian officials afraid to help. School governors in Derby, for example, wouldn't let Karma Nirvana put up government-approved information posters in schools. The FMU has written guidelines to help police, social services, and teachers recognize and deal with suspected victims, and the new law will require agencies and schools to use those guidelines to train employees—a clause supporters hope will reduce public misconceptions.

Activists also argue that leaders in Britain's Asian communities and mosques don't take the issue seriously enough. Khanum says many of these leaders, invariably men, won't admit the problem exists. Shaminder Ubhi, who runs the Ashiana Project, an East London shelter, says there's an unwillingness to highlight a problem that could further stigmatize Britain's Muslims in the wake of ongoing worries over Islamic terrorism. "They're saying, 'Here's another thing to pin on the Muslim communities.'"

There are consequences the law can't address. "These women are isolated, not only from their families but from their communities. They are completely ostracized," Ubhi says. For instance, 14 years after she bolted, Sanghera still remains a pariah to her family. Not surprisingly, many victims have deep emotional problems. Ubhi estimates that mental illness plagues at least 60 percent of her clients. Some turn to drugs and alcohol—or self-harming.

That's been Fatima's history. She began overdosing on over-the-counter drugs and cutting herself as the pressure to marry mounted—a destructive behavior she has not fully stopped. She knows it's wrong. Yet she still finds relief from guilt in abusing herself. "It is," Fatima says, her voice turning to a whisper, "my salvation."