LONDON—When Fatima was still a baby, her eventual marriage to a first cousin living in Pakistan was set into motion by her paternal grandparents. They hoped the union would heal a family rift. For Fatima, it would become a nightmare.
Born and raised in a southern England city, Fatima (not her real name) says her parents were "loving and amazing," her childhood home life "fantastic." But then, in her late teens, she was horrified to learn of the marriage pact. Her parents weren't happy about it, either, but felt honorbound and feared being ostracized from the local tightknit Asian community if they blocked the marriage. "It was difficult for them to disobey," she says.
Difficult for her, too. She gave in to what she calls the "emotional abuse" of their incessant pleadings. So four years ago, after earning a university degree, Fatima—then in her early 20s—was escorted to Pakistan by her father to reluctantly wed the cousin. She was forced to remain with him at her in-laws' house for two weeks, where she says he repeatedly raped her. Then, returning to Britain, Fatima had to apply for his visa so he could join her—and continue the violent abuse. Her father has since kicked him out of their house because, she claims, he tried to strangle her.
Though now separated from her husband, she doesn't yet feel emotionally strong enough to file for divorce. And her feelings toward her parents are decidedly mixed. She still loves them and understands their motives, she says, but also resents them for putting her through hell. "I can't get over that," she adds. "Part of me hates them."
Fatima's sad saga may sound medieval, but it's not a unique story in modern Britain. A new study (.pdf) suggests that as many as 4,000 British subjects endure forced marriages every year—10 times the number of official cases handled in 2007 by the government's Forced Marriage Unit, a six-member team created two years ago to help victims of coerced marriages. Forced, or coerced, marriages differ from arranged marriages, in which both the would-be bride and groom willingly consent to the involvement by parents or a third party in choosing a spouse.
Eighty-five percent of the FMU's clients are women, most between the ages of 16 and 24, though one was only 8. Most are Muslims from South Asia—65 percent are of Pakistani descent, 15 percent Bangladeshi. And the number of cases the FMU—and various private organizations—are handling continues to rise. The known instances "are just the tip of the iceberg," says the report's author, political scientist Nazia Khanum.
The government's response is a law that comes into effect later this year that supporters hope will stem the number of these marriages. The Forced Marriage Act will allow civil courts to issue restraining orders to stop forced marriages from occurring and to protect victims. It also allows interested third parties—counselors or teachers, for instance—to seek court permission to intervene on behalf of victims too fearful to seek help on their own. It will become "a powerful tool for those trying to protect victims of forced marriage," says Bridget Prentice of the Justice Ministry.
Although the law doesn't criminalize forced marriage, the crimes that can intersect these unions are clearly serious: rape, assault, kidnapping, and even murder. One estimate claims there may be one so-called honor killing a month in Britain.
Nevertheless, many forced-marriage critics lobbied against creating a new criminal act banning the marriages because victims—even those subjected to the worst abuse—are often unwilling to see their parents prosecuted. It was feared a tougher measure would make them more unlikely to seek help. "Criminalizing it would take it underground," Khanum warns. Jasvinder Sanghera disagrees. Sanghera set up the support group Karma Nirvana in 1994 in Derby, north England, after she fled her family to escape a forced marriage in India. "That's the same debate we got over domestic violence," she says, yet Britain made that a specific crime in 2004.
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."