Monday 2 July 2012

The forced marriage ban is welcome, but it's 20 years too late

The government's decision to criminalise forced marriage comes 20 years too late for some of us. Don't get me wrong, I sincerely welcome legislation to bring this terrible practice to an end. After all, I was a victim of it in my teenage years. This is my story.
When I was 19 I was invited on a family holiday to Bangladesh where my father, without consulting me, had organised my marriage. I have a vivid memory of those harrowing weeks, the psychological toll they took, and the severe physical impact. I was ill, I lost three stones in weight, I contracted tuberculosis for which I have had to undergo major surgery twice (the scar and occasional pain still brings back the raw feelings, even today). I would never wish this on anyone.
Forced marriage and arranged marriage are two different things. The former violates human rights, while the latter could be a source of family unity if conducted with mutual agreement. I remember when my father said to me: "I am your father, it is my duty to get you married." I knew instantly that he was wrong. He had no right to impose his choice on me. This confusion between parental responsibilities and parental will is at the core of this practice. I believe parents have the right to be consulted over their children's choice of marital partner, and that their blessings are vital to family harmony – but they have no right to choose their marital partner.
When we first arrived in Bangladesh my father tried to take my passport and plane ticket from me. To keep the peace I gave them to him, but as soon as he left his bag out of his sight I took them back. In fact, although I had not been told about the marriage I was not unprepared. I had a hunch he may attempt something like this so I had made copies of my passport and left them with people in the UK and one trusted friend in Bangladesh. I am thankful I had a plan and an escape route; many others have no way out.
When my father could not find my passport, he knew he had no real control over me, but he still wanted to exert as much pressure as possible to force me to accept his choice. I was thrown out of the house and my uncle took me in. I could have left Bangladesh, but I did not want to leave like a coward. I wanted to stand my ground, not just for my own sake, but for my siblings too. I was young, an idealist and I wanted to fight this injustice.
I was asked to meet the girl, but refused. Why meet her, I argued, when I was not ready to get married? Instead I wrote to the girl's father, apologising for not marrying his daughter but saying his daughter should not be forced into a marriage either, she must have the right to choose. I later heard that he was impressed by my stance.
All my relatives gathered for a family meeting in an attempt to persuade me to agree to my father's demand. They told me: "Your father has given his word to this family. It would bring dishonour and shame on him if you do not comply." I could not stop laughing at this warped logic. Why did he give his word in the first place, I asked? "If he really wants to keep his words and protect his honour, let him marry the girl of his choice," I shouted. Then the village elders came round. They, too, tried to persuade me that this was becoming embarrassing for the village and that in the interests of the people and my father, I should accept. God would bless me, they reassured me. My response was as robust as before. So they tried a final bombshell. "Your father will kill himself – surely you don't want him to do that?" My reply still shocks me. "If my father wants to buy a one-way ticket to hell, then good luck to him," I answered, referring to the Islamic prohibition on suicide.
Emotional blackmail is one of the key factors that traps sons and daughters. The majority only eventually agree to such marriages because of the love and high esteem they have for their parents. They say to themselves "what will I lose if I marry this person? I have to get married one day." But a marriage should not be based on how sorry you feel. In Islam husband and wife are described as "garments unto one another" that protect, cover, maintain privacy, beautify and create a safe space for intimacy.
Forced marriages have nothing to do with honour or keeping promises. They have everything to do with power, control and social status. I was never going to submit to that – and deep inside my father knew this. But he still wanted to control me. This came at a huge price. I did not speak to my father for more than three years.
Eventually we did mend our relationship, but it can never be the same. Today I am married. My father met my wife before we wed, and gave his full blessing – in fact, although he now suffers from dementia and easily forgets people and places he never forgets my wife, and always asks about her.
I believe my struggle worked; my siblings have married partners of their choice, from various cultures and countries. My wife is Hungarian, one sister is married to a white man from Preston and another to a Czech man.
But all this misery and heartache could have been avoided if this legislation had been introduced earlier. I believe it would have been a strong enough deterrent to save many people. Forced marriage is not sanctioned in any religion and no cultures should condone it.
I am lucky that I was able to stand up for myself but most young and vulnerable people are not so lucky. This legislation, along with better awareness, will help eradicate this ghastly practice.

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