Â By Martin Beckford, Religious Affairs CorrespondentÂ
A special Government unit dedicated to stopping teenagers being married off by their families dealt with 300 cases in the first half of this year, up from 168 in the same period of 2007.
Update:Â America’s Most WantedÂ did a story on theÂ honor killings in TexasÂ of Amina and Sarah Said by their father, Yaser Said, but — not surprisingly — they glossed over the honor killing angle.
As long as the mainstream media keeps doing this, instead of calling the American Muslim community to some accountability, more Muslim girls will be murdered for honor in the United States.
PamelaÂ has a heartbroken letter from the girls’ Aunt Gail about the shoddiness and inaccuracy of theÂ America’s Most WantedÂ presentation.
But the head of the Forced Marriage Unit, based at the Foreign Office, fears this could be just the tip of the iceberg as many victims are too scared to come forward and communities often close up to hide what is going on.
Wayne Ives also warned that heads of families are going to extreme lengths to get their children to marry, in some instances posing as officials to kidnap runaway brides or paying people to track them down.
His comments came as a new law comes into effect next week, which will make it easier for courts to stop ceremonies going ahead if it is feared that the bride and groom are being married against their wills.
A separate law will see the minimum age at which foreigners can come to Britain to get married being increased.
Despite the drive to tackle forced marriages, however, many feel it is still taboo because of fears of criticising immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are involved in most cases.
Schools have refused to discuss so-called honour crimes in case they cause offence to ethnic minorities or religions, while MPs have been accused of failing to highlight forced marriage in case they lose Muslim votes.
In a recent speech to a Capita conference, Mr Ives told delegates: “We are talking about endemic abuse of the worst kind against young men and women which is happening right here and right now.”
He said the mere fact that a teenage girl is seen wearing a short skirt or having a boyfriend can be enough for her relatives to decide she has betrayed the family and must be forced to marry someone they deem acceptable, while others make disabled children get married so they can have a carer in a “warped form of altruism”.
In total, 90 per cent of cases dealt with in Britain involve Bangladeshi or Pakistani families, but investigators are uncovering growing numbers of forced marriages involving Iranians, Turks, Kurds and Somalis.
Thanks to increased awareness, the Forced Marriage Unit has had 1,200 inquiries this year, 300 of which are being investigated as possible cases.
But Mr Ives warned: “What we’ve seen is the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr Ives said it was unacceptable for people to tolerate forced marriage as just part of a different culture.
“It’s not simply a cultural ceremony. It’s people being abused, being raped.”
He said forced marriage had not been criminalised because it was believed victims would not want to see their relatives arrested.
But the new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which comes into force on November 25, will allow anyone to demand a injunction against a wedding ceremony going ahead or an intended bride or groom being taken overseas. Anyone who breaches these court orders could be prosecuted.
In addition, on Nov 27 the minimum age at which foreigners can come to Britain to get married will rise from 18 to 21 before a marriage visa can be granted.
Mr Ives went on to describe the lengths some families will go to in order to track down those who they want to be married.
“Two uncles managed to dress up as airport officials and tried to arrest a girl when she arrived in Pakistan.
“In the UK you’re dealing with networks, bounty hunters are being used and particularly in the north taxi drivers are being asked to say ‘if you see this person let us know’.”
He said victims sometimes suffer even if they have the courage to come forward, as the authorities may not believe their stories and then contact their families, with the result that they suffer even worse abuse afterwards. If they run away from home, meanwhile, they are left isolated from their communities.
By Colin Freeman in Mirpur
Last Updated: 5:25PM GMT 23 Nov 2008
Forced marriage shelter – Diplomats dash to rescue 15-year-old British girl from threat of forced marriage in Pakistan
Standing amid the chickens that peck the courtyard dust of her home in a remote Kashmiri village, Shafaq Malik looks just like the dutiful young Pakistani wife her father wants her to become.
Her pretty features framed by a lace headscarf draped over a maroon gown, she stands out from her aunts and cousins for just thing: the broad Leeds accent that gives away her previous life as an English schoolgirl. Right now, it is also a life to which she may be about to return â€“ courtesy of two British diplomats who have come to save her from the wedding which her father wants to force upon her.
The diplomats, who have driven three hours from the British High Commision in Islamabad, are from the “consular assistance” team, better known for helping Britons who have been robbed, arrested, or lost their passports.
Here in rural Pakistan, though, what counts as a Briton in need of assistance can be more complex. In Shafaq’s case, as with hundreds of other British-Pakistani women on their files, the High Commission’s officials have been tipped off that she is being forced into marriage against her will. A girl’s own objections are often little match for the huge social pressure to conform to her family’s wishes, or the male relatives who will prevent her running away.
Hence the diplomatically unorthodox foot-in-the-door approach adopted by the team – where they turn up, unannounced, and ask if she wants them to take her back to Britain.
“My father has been wanting me to get married,” she confirms nervously, once the diplomats have ushered her into a dingy parlour to talk to her out of earshot of her family. “He said everybody would talk about me if I disagreed. I want to go back to my mum in Britain.”
During the conversation, conducted in low voices in case people are listening behind the door, other brief details of her past six years in the village near the Pakistani city of Mirpur are revealed. Her parents split in 2002, only for Shafaq’s father to whisk her off Pakistan against her mother’s wishes. Since then, she has only been to school for one year, staying at home to learn about cooking and embroidery.
The city itself is a dusty, sprawling, hive of light industry and commerce, and many of its 370,000 inhabitants have links with the UK. But the village where Shafaq lives, surrounded by dry fields and reached by a rough road, is a far cry from the northern English city where she grew up.
Swapping suburban streets for a rural family compound and trading GCSEs for housekeeping skills is nothing, however, compared to the prospect of being forced to marry a man she has never met. But she fears that her father will beat her were she to defy him, and later it emerges that he has already done so.
Nor is sneaking from the house and running away an option, either. In socially conservative rural Pakistan, any unaccompanied female will be challenged and stopped within five minutes of leaving the village.
Instead, her only hope is the diplomatic team, which has come armed with a British court order, backed by a Pakistani judge, to return her to her mother. The alarm had been raised weeks earlier when a friend nearby, in whom she confided, passed a message to Shafaq’s mother through her own family in Britain. Her mother contacted the Forced Marriage Unit in London, which in turn alerted the team from Islamabad.
Their visit has been scheduled for a time when her father is out of the country on business, minimising the risk of trouble. But Shafaq’s step-mother has other ideas.
“Shafaq, did you ring these people?” she scolds, hands on the hips of a ruby-coloured gown. “You are bringing disgrace on the family!” Shafaq stares down at the threadbare carpet, not daring to meet her stepmother’s gaze. “I’m scared she might hit me,” she whispers.
Last year, the embassy deal with 131 cases of suspected forced marriages, most iinvolving a typical pattern. A young woman is encouraged by her family to pay a visit the old country, ostensibly to attend a wedding or other family occasion. Once there, however, pressure starts on them to get hitched themselves. First it is hints, subtle and not so subtle, about elegible local men. Then, flight tickets home and passports may mysteriously vanish. In the age of mobile phones, however, a discreet distress call – often via a friend back home – can often be managed.
“Sometimes the parents just think their daughter is becoming too westernised by living in Britain, and that returning them to a more traditional life in Pakistan will regain their sense of morality,” said consular official Theepan Selvaratnam, as two High Commission SUV’s negotiated their way through Mirpur’s motorised rickshaw traffic. “But visas are also a massive factor in arranged marriages. A daughter will be asked to marry a nephew to get his side of the family a foothold in the UK.”
That many women now choose to ask the High Commission for help is also thanks partly to its own education campaigns about forced marriages, run in tandem with the government’s unti in London, which deals with around 4,000 cases a year. Leaflets on the subject are distributed to Pakistani airlines, and debates organised on local television channels where both sides of the argument are put. This week, a new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act comes into force in Britain, and will give courts far wider powers to intervene in suspected forced marriage cases. Sensitive to Pakistani cultural norms, the act raises no objection to traditional arranged marriages, but treats forced marriage as a human rights abuse.
Ahead of the act becoming law, The Sunday Telegraph accompanied the consular team in Islamabad as they visited Shafaq, one of a large number of cases they get from the Mirpur district, south west of Islamabad. A predominantly rural area, its connection with Britain goes back the building of the vast Mirpur dam in the 1960s, when 5,000 locals whose villages were flooded were given work permits for Britain.
The textile factories of northern England where many first found work have long since shut, yet the link with Britain flourishes like never before. Shopkeepers with heavy Yorkshire accents stock Frosties and Tesco’s own-brand Apple Pies, takeaways sell fish and chips, and many businesses advertise with Bradford phone numbers.
Profits made from the corner shops and curry houses 3,000 miles away are ploughed into proud “status homes”, ornate villas that are a far cry from the terraced streets where many of their owners live in Britain. The need for manpower to maintain such lucrative family business empires is also a factor in the high number of forced marriages here. Anybody who takes a British-born girl as a wife stands a better chance of qualifying for a passport.
The fact that more than just family honour is often at stake means Mr Selvaratnam never knows what to expect when he turns up. Sometimes he runs straight into an angry patriarch or posse of hostile uncles, while at other times, traditional Pakistani hospitality means he is often offered tea and cakes, at the beginning at least. But with feelings running potentially high in every case, the team always travels prepared for the worst. Their two SUVs are manned by trained getaway drivers, while in each car a Pakistani bodyguard carries a firearm discreetly under his white robes. A detachment of local police also usually tags along, although the preference always is for discretion.
“Normally, we say that we don’t want to upset the family honour by inviting the police in or causing a scene,” said Mr Selvaratnam. “The main argy bargy often happens when there isn’t a senior male figure in the house. If there isn’t, aunts and mothers will occasionally start pulling at my arms and begging with me. I even had them kissing my feet once.”
Another problem is the second thoughts that many victims have when the team finally knocks. Even those who have said they are desperate to leave can find their resolve crumbling when faced with the hurt, bemused looks of angry relatives. The team sometimes leave empty-handed, knowing also that all hell may break loose once they are gone, and that the woman will probably have been moved elsewhere should they ever return.
“Sometimes you will visit a girl who has clearly been beaten, yet will says she still wants to stay,” said Mr Selvaratnam. “Those are the hardest cases to deal with. Walking away from those situations is awful, you just have to try to keep following up on them.”
Having finally tracked Shafaq down, the team ask her whether she definitely want to leave. She nods, but has a few questions. “Can’t I say goodbye to my friends in the village first?” No, she was told, they should really go straight away. “What about my uncles down the road, they might cause trouble.” Don’t worry, was the reply, the police are outside.
There is no protection, though, from the glares of Shafaq’s stepmother, who insists she cannot leave without her father’s permission. Eventually the diplomats ask the waiting police to enter the family compound, and as the officers wander inside the diplomats escort Shafaq out. “Shame on you,” scolds her stepmother.
The girl heads across the courtyard towards the waiting SUVs, which will take her back to a women’s refuge in Islamabad. Some 48 hours later she will be on a plane back to England. As she walks out of the gate for what may well be the last time, she does not look over her shoulder.